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.

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The previous posts in this series can be seen hereherehereherehere, here, and here.

Many reformers work to ensure that every child has access to great schools. Similar universal aspirations have inspired countless others—the recognition of unalienable rights, the elimination of poverty, the fair distribution of resources.

Indeed, the question of how to define and realize “justice” has consumed philosophers for centuries. A key lesson from this Everest of scholarship is that all approaches require tradeoffs.

Unfortunately, our field doesn’t talk much about tradeoffs, and we certainly don’t talk about philosophy. You’ll not find in your conference program, “Plato, Aquinas, and Nietzsche: The Metaphysics of Annual Testing.”

But this is not to say that reform is philosophy-free. Conservatives led this movement twenty-five years ago; their skepticism of government monopolies and public sector unions and commitment to empowering parents and diversifying options owed much to Smith, Mill, and Friedman. 

Today, progressives dominate education reform, and progressivism is stirred...

This post has been updated with the full text of "Shifting from learning to read to reading to learn."

Spring means high-stakes tests in America’s schools, and this year’s test season is already proving to be a particularly contentious one. The number of parents choosing to “opt out” of tests remains small but appears to be growing. Anti-testing sentiment will likely sharpen as rigorous tests associated with Common Core are rolled out in earnest this year. Parents who have been lulled into complacency by their children’s scores on low-bar state tests may not react well when their children are measured against higher standards.

Testing—who should be tested, how often, and in which subjects – is also one of the most contentious issues in the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the most recent iteration of which is better known as No Child Left Behind). At present, the feds require states to test every student every year in math and reading from grades 3–8. However, if we are serious about improving reading—and education outcomes for children at large—we might be better off if we stopped testing reading in third grade rather than started it.

There are two big problems with existing test-driven...

Ohio has been a hotbed of education reform in recent years, but two policy areas remain mostly virgin territory: teacher preparation and licensure. I tackled the former previously; now let’s examine three significant problems with Ohio’s approach to the latter.

1. Lack of content tests for early childhood licenses

According to NCTQ’s 2014 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, Ohio is one of only four states in the nation that doesn’t require all elementary teachers to pass a content test prior to licensure (see here for the Ohio details). A list of required assessments shows that early childhood (PK–3) teachers are only required to pass the Assessment of Professional Knowledge: Early Childhood (which tests pedagogical knowledge) and Early Childhood Education assessments. The second of these tests is intended to assess a candidate’s content mastery, but closer inspection reveals that the only core content with its own, separate part of the test is language and literacy development. Math, social studies, and science content are smaller parts of “Domain III” which itself only accounts for 36 percent of the test. This 36 percent is divided among music, drama, creative movement, dance, visual arts, health, safety, and physical activity...

Across the nation, the monopoly of traditional school districts over public education is slowly eroding. Trust-busting policies like public charter schools and vouchers have given parents and students more options than ever before. But how vibrant are school marketplaces in America’s largest districts?

Now in its fourth year, the Education Choice and Competition Index is one of the best examinations of educational markets, rating the hundred most populous districts along four key dimensions: (1) access to school options; (2) processes that align student preferences with schools (e.g., common applications, clear information on schools); (3) policies that favor the growth of popular schools, such as funds following students; and (4) subsidies for poor families.

The top-rated district, you ask? The Recovery School District in New Orleans won top marks in 2014, as it has in the two prior years. New York City and Newark, New Jersey, are close behind the Big Easy. The study commends these cities for their ample supply of school options—and just as importantly, for policies that support quality choice. For instance, this trio of cities (along with Denver) has adopted an algorithm that optimally matches student preferences with school assignments. Impressive stuff from which...

  • In the wake of the Jeb Bush not-quite-announcement and the Scott Walker boomlet, it should now be clear to all that we’ve entered the wonderful season of presidential politics. In that spirit, AEI scholars and Friends of Fordham Andrew P. Kelly and Frederick Hess have logged some important commentary on G.O.P. hopefuls and education policy. It’s all well and good, they write, for governors like Bush, Walker, Bobby Jindal, and John Kasich to list the ambitious policies they enacted back home, but they also have to square their reform instincts with a commitment to a sensibly limited federal role in schooling. It’s a paradox that conservative reformers especially are familiar with: How do you embrace a bold agenda for change without falling into the trap of top-down edicts and federal overreach?
  • Politico has an informative look at higher education’s “wait-and-see” attitude toward the Common Core, at least when it comes to using its associated assessments for placement decisions. While many reformers (Gadfly among them) hope that tests such as the PARCC and Smarter Balanced might one day be used to determine whether students are ready for credit-bearing courses, waiting for more data is a responsible position
  • ...

This article is part of a new Education Next series on the state of the American family that marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 release of the Moynihan Report. We are reprinting it here in two installments; the first was published in last week’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

Last week, I argued that single parenthood is a major impediment to upward mobility for low-income youth, especially when parenthood starts in one’s teens or early twenties. Furthermore, I concluded that the most important “intervention” is hope: a realistic plan for a life trajectory that is more compelling than early motherhood and fatherhood. This means, among other things, having meaningful opportunities for higher education and interesting, decently paid work. How, then, can schools boost the education and employment prospects of disadvantaged children?

One way is to get many more young people—especially those from challenging backgrounds—“to and through” four-year college degrees. This well-meaning strategy is the primary focus of education reform. There’s little doubt that, when it’s successful, this will encourage many more young people to delay childbearing, which increases their odds of getting married before starting a family.

But it need...

On Sunday, Mike spoke to the New York State Council of School Superintendents. These were his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you for the kind invitation to speak to you today. I know that some of you are wondering what the folks at the Council were thinking in inviting me. Certainly there are a lot of angry people on Twitter wondering that. I hope that by the end of my talk, it might make a little more sense.

The title of my talk is “How to End the Education Reform Wars.” But as I’ve thought more about it, I’ve decided that this isn’t exactly the right title. That’s because you, as superintendents, don’t have it within your control to end this war. That’s because it’s not really about you. Especially here in New York, it seems clear to me that it’s a war between the governor and the unions, as well as between the reformers and the unions. It’s also a fight between the governor and Mayor de Blasio.

So the real question is how you can navigate these wars. A better title for my speech might be, “How to Survive the Education Reform Wars.” And how can you...

One of the most important developments in urban education over the last two decades has been the rapid expansion of school choice.

To some, this represents the happy, if unexpected, marriage of public education and free enterprise thinking—diversification of providers, growth of school options, and empowerment of parents.

But an underappreciated and counterintuitive contributor to this progress has been the reform-oriented technocrat. Indeed, in the years to come, if civil society and families are to make more decisions and the government is to make fewer, policymakers have a critical role to play.

For a century, we relied on the district system to deliver urban public education. There was a single government provider, it controlled all aspects of its schools, and students’ school assignments were based on home addresses. Countless policies and practices (related to facilities, transportation, accountability, and much more) evolved with that particular system in mind.

But as that system is slowly replaced by one marked by an array of nongovernmental school providers, parental choice, and the “portfolio management” mindset, new policies (undergirded by a new understanding of the government’s role in public schooling) are needed. That requires new government activity, much like the transition from a state-controlled...

Florida—home to Disney World, sunny skies, and bizarre crimes—is probably best known for its sizable elderly population. Yet a new report from the state’s Foundation for Excellence in Education warns that we are all Florida, or will be soon enough. Dr. Matthew Ladner, who pens the report, predicts that by 2030, the demographics in most of the country will mirror those in today’s geriatric Sunshine State. And that doesn’t bode well for our nation’s fiscal health.

Seventy-six million Baby Boomers will soon leave the workforce. Growing along with this cohort—albeit at a lesser rate—is the school-aged population. As a result, the total percentage of young and old Americans dependent on government-financed education, healthcare, and Social Security will jump from 59 percent in 2010 to 76 percent in 2030.

Fortunately, just as readers might consider panicked calls to parents begging them to reconsider retirement, the report offers some hope. The future workers of America are in school at this very moment. Providing them with an excellent education is the best step towards building a large base of wage-earning, tax-paying citizens. According to Ladner, one of the most cost-effective ways to do this is to expand school choice. Charter and private...

There is no shortage of theories to explain how learning works and how teachers, as purveyors of knowledge, should disseminate that knowledge to students (though there tends to be a shortage of supporting evidence for any of them). In The Teaching Brain, doctoral candidate and former New York City schoolteacher Vanessa Rodriguez proposes yet another: Forget learning styles and multiple intelligences; teaching is all about “awarenesses”—of learners as individuals, of teaching practices, contexts, and interactions, and of one’s “self as a teacher.” 

She casts off older theories as antiquated, instinctive, and too student-centered, arguing that they’ve hindered educational innovation and stifled educators’ professional development. How students learn ought not be our only concern, she says. Instead, the book introduces “system-centered teaching,” which aims to infuse instruction with awareness of both how students’ brains work when they learn (“the learning brain”) and also how teachers’ brains work when they teach (the so-called “teaching brain”).

Because this is somewhat uncharted territory, a large portion of the book purports to examine the minds of expert educators. Rodriguez concludes that the brains of teachers differ considerably, which means that one-size-fits-all approaches to instruction are bound to fail. What may work for one teacher might...

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