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.

Sherman Dorn

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on Sherman Dorn's blog.

Science writer David Kohn has an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, “Let the Kids Learn Through Play.” For historians, the first three words ring alarm bells: “Twenty years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing” (emphasis added).

Great: another Myth of the Golden Age. Maybe my memory is flawed, but Google Books and I both agree that the early 1990s was a time when “child-care crisis” was on the tip of many tongues, or at least on far more tongues and keyboards than before or since:

For many parents, any child care they can pay for is an uncertain proposition; debates over play versus early academics are a luxury for millions. For others, the quality of interactions between teachers and young children trumps the question of what happens during the day. And in practice, the divide between “play” and “academics” is often specious. When my son’s preschool teachers in the late 1990s cut up samples of almost a dozen types of fruit for his class to try, was that...

Jeb Bush told reporters Wednesday that he’s “running for president”—supposedly an accidental slip of the tongue. Nevertheless, if and when the former Florida governor makes an official proclamation, few will be surprised, and many will consider him a frontrunner. He’s also the subject of the ninth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Out of all the people who are running or may run for president, Bush is probably the most reform-minded. He was elected governor of Florida in 1999, and during his eight years in office, he focused heavily on public education—instituting, among other things, tougher standards, a voucher program, and corporate tax scholarships for low-income students. In 2008, a year after he left office, he founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an influential education reform nonprofit that works on standards and accountability, school choice, college and career readiness, and a number of other issues. The ...

On Tuesday, Georgetown University hosted President Obama, Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam, and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks for a talk about poverty and opportunity. With typical brilliance, the three men discussed myriad issues that affect the lives of America’s most disadvantaged—offering thoughtful insights into all of them. From an education policy standpoint, however, President Obama’s call for greater investment in public schools was the most interesting.

Robert Putnam, in his new book Our Kids, argues that over the last thirty to forty years, disadvantaged youth have faced diminishing opportunities while their more affluent peers have enjoyed dramatically more. President Obama agreed, but also observed that this is nothing new. “This pattern,” he said, “is no different than what William Julius Wilson was talking about when he talked about the truly disadvantaged [thirty years ago].”

The president acknowledged that some of the challenges facing the middle class come from macroeconomic changes, such as technological innovation and globalization. But he also argued that some of it resulted from public policy choices we’ve made in recent decades. In...

Last Friday, I was sworn in as a member of the Maryland State Board of Education.

It’s an honor to have this chance to serve. It also has great personal meaning to me. I’m a product of Maryland public education from start to finish: from Broadneck Elementary through Magothy River Middle and Severn River Junior High, then Broadneck High, and into the University of Maryland, I’ve attended only Maryland public schools since I was six years old. Now my oldest—a soon-to-be five-year old who loves math problems, puzzles, his scooter, and Spider-Man—begins kindergarten this fall in our local Maryland public school.

Before he administered my oath, the court clerk reminded me how personally we all take our schools. He talked about the high school just down the road—the same high school he attended decades earlier, the high school where he met some of the people in the photos hanging on his office walls.

During my drive to the courthouse, I passed a number of working farms in my rural county. I remembered my elementary school’s annual tradition of watching Maryland: America in Miniature. I learned that the ...

  • With the hue and cry surrounding big policy issues like testing, school choice, accountability, and labor, too little bandwidth remains for district- and building-level ideas that can spark energy in new directions. In the pages of Education Next, Fordham Senior Visiting Fellow Peter Meyer tells the tangled story of one such innovation: New York City’s small high schools. An early fixation of philanthreformers like Walter Annenberg and Bill Gates, the broader movement away from colossal public schools and toward more manageable, specialized academies was for years widely viewed as a failed effort; students could be sorted into the redesigned schools, but curriculum and instruction always seemed to lag. New York’s effort, the brainchild of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, changed all that by providing institutional backing behind the initiative. Rather than scattering isolated seeds throughout an otherwise unaltered system, the city’s leaders directly engaged educators to develop a broad and resilient base of some two hundred schools. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that breaking up crowded behemoths into fun-sized institutions of learning increases graduation rates for low-income kids, but this tactic is an avenue to academic success that hasn’t been given the recognition it’s due. Thankfully,
  • ...

This book, an updated edition of Stanford professor Jo Boaler’s seminal 2008 work of the same name, tackles an important if familiar issue: The United States has a mathematics problem. On the 2012 iteration of PISA, the international test administered by the OECD, we ranked thirty-sixth out of sixty-five countries in math performance—and twenty-seventh out of thirty-four among OECD members. More ominously, 70 percent of students attending two-year colleges require remedial math courses—which only one in ten successfully passes.

Boaler argues that American math education is ineffective for three reasons: First, classroom learning is too passive, with teachers lecturing from the blackboard instead of actively interacting with their students. Second, instruction doesn’t emphasize understanding and critical thought, leaning instead on memorization and regurgitation. And third, the contexts in which content is taught don’t reflect the way math is used in everyday life. Take for example the following textbook question: “A pizza is divided into fifths for five friends at a party. Three of the friends eat their slices, but then four more friends arrive. What fractions should the remaining two slices be divided into?” When, in real life, would you need this, when you could just order more pizza?...

On May 13, Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli delivered testimony before a Pennsylvania State Senate committee. These were his remarks.

Chairman Smucker, Minority Chairman Dinniman, members of the committee: It’s an honor to be with you. My name is Mike Petrilli. I’m the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education policy think tank based in Washington that also does on-the-ground school reform work in the great state of Ohio. I was honored to serve in the George W. Bush administration; our founder and president emeritus, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan administration.

As a strong conservative and a strong supporter of education reform, I am pleased to speak in favor of Senate Bill 6 and its intent to create an Achievement School District for Pennsylvania. Turnaround school districts are among the most promising reforms in American education today.

Over four years ago, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, along with our friends at the Center for American Progress, began a multi-year initiative designed to draw attention to the elephant in the ed-reform living room: governance. Given its ability to trample any promising education improvement—or clear the way for its implementation—it was high time to put governance...

Recently I had the privilege of listening to practitioners from Ohio’s high-performing districts who shared how they’re achieving success. These districts are earning A grades on their state report cards in notoriously difficult areas such as closing achievement gaps, effectively serving gifted students and students with disabilities, and increasing student achievement across the board. 

The series of events was hosted by Battelle for Kids in conjunction with the Ohio Department of Education, and I was able to hear from five of the exemplary districts: Marysville, Orange City, Oak Hills Local, Solon City, and Mechanicsburg. Here are the important commonalities I found among the strategies discussed.

1. Plus time

This strategy goes by a different name depending on which district you visit: “no-new-instruction time,” “flex time,” “plus time,” and “support classes” were all terms I heard, but the basic idea was the same. Each of these high flyers altered their daily schedule so that students received around forty minutes a day of either enrichment or remediation. To be clear, this isn’t an additional class in which students learn new information; instead, this is a time for...

Cohabitation continues between the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). And they don't appear to be practicing birth control, because every year brings one or two new joint products. NIEER's hot-off-the-presses report—the tenth in its series of annual "state of preschool" data-and-advocacy scorecards—was again paid for via a multi-year sole-source contract from the National Center for Education Statistics, and was released at an event featuring none other than Arne Duncan.

Nobody is making any effort to conceal this romance (which is just as well if you believe in governmental transparency).

Its progeny, however, all seem to look alike. This report is more of the same: a celebration of various increases in state-funded early childhood programs, strong recommendations for yet more increases, sundry state-by-state comparisons, and individual state profiles. The only difference between it and the most recent one published by the Education Department itself is that NIEER's policy advocacy is naked while the federal versions at least wear diapers.

Aside from the question of whether Uncle Sam should be paying for this, my biggest issue continues to be NIEER's woeful definition of preschool "quality." At least eight of their ten "national...

Much attention has been paid to why teachers quit. Statistics and studies get thrown around, and there are countless theories to explain the attrition rate. While recent reports indicate that the trend might not be as bad as we’ve thought, teacher attrition isn’t just about whole-population numbers—it’s about retaining the most effective teachers within those numbers. Indeed, a 2012 study from TNTP (formerly known as the New Teacher Project) notes that our failure to improve teacher retention is largely a matter of failing to retain the right teachers. A separate study suggests that retaining the best teachers is all about reducing barriers that make teachers feel powerless and isolated. The 2014 National Teacher of the Year recently pointed out that, among myriad other causes, lacking influence in their own schools and districts (let alone in state policy) is often at the root of teacher attrition.

Keeping high-performers in the classroom has long been a trouble spot for schools. “If you don’t offer leadership opportunities for teachers to excel in their profession, to grow, and still allow them to stay in the classroom,” says Ruthanne Buck, senior advisor to Secretary of...

Pages