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.

Dear Deborah,

A healthy debate we've started indeed! I'm not sure we've bridged many differences, though; maybe we should change the blog's name to Bigging Differences.

In that spirit, let me float another provocative but commonsensical idea: We need to do everything we can—in our schools and in our larger social policies—to empower individuals who are working hard to climb the ladder to success. In other words, we need to spur on the strivers.

Let me explain some of my assumptions.

  1. As we've been discussing, I still believe in the promise of upward mobility. I don't buy into the dystopia of some on the left that pictures a future with an eviscerated middle class, opportunities only for the elite, and a vast dependent population. Times are tough now, but economic growth and jobs will return; the American Dream will be back.
  2. But I'm no utopian. Not all children born into poverty are going to make it out by adulthood. Most face powerful disadvantages—dysfunctional families, substance abuse, crime, segregation, broken economies, bad schools, etc.—and not everyone will be able to overcome them. Surely, though, we can do better than our current track record, which is to lift roughly half of all poor children into the working or middle class by the age of 25.
  3. Climbing the ladder of opportunity takes effort—by individuals and by their families. And it often
  4. ...

As waves of reforms and would-be reforms have washed over American public education these past three decades, high schools have mostly stayed dry. Although test scores have risen slightly in the early grades, especially in math, National Assessment results for twelfth-graders have been flat or down a bit. SAT scores are also flat, and ACT averages much the same.

ACT, the organization that administers the college-entrance test of the same name, judges only one-quarter of its test-takers to be fully ready for college-level academics, and the College Board is not much cheerier. In releasing SAT results for the 1.6 million members of the high school class of 2013 who took the test, the board estimated that just 43 percent met its benchmark for college and career readiness—a score of 1550 or better (out of 2400), which translates to a 65 percent chance of having a B-minus (or better) GPA during the freshman year in college.

And that’s among those who stick it out and graduate from high school. Millions of young people drop out. School discipline remains appalling, with gangs, metal detectors, and violence the norm in many places.

The basic institutional structures for high school that former Harvard president James B. Conant described and recommended in an influential 1959 book remain pretty much unchanged a half-century later. The rest of the world has not been idle, however....


Over the past several weeks, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli has been debating Deborah Meier on her Bridging Differences blog about the relationship between poverty and education. One topic that’s come up is the impact of family breakdown. This guest post by Center of the American Experiment president Mitch Pearlstein explores what might be done about it.

Presuming one thinks it’s generally not great for children to live with only one parent, and that it’s not great for the commonweal either, what might you be tempted to say to a young woman or man who was blasé, perhaps even eager, to bring a child into the world in which it was understood, from Day One, that one of his or her parents was essentially out of the family portrait and would remain that way? This is what I might say with as much empathy and grace as I could:

I assure you I know that life can be terribly unpredictable and difficult. In fact, it usually is. This is especially case when it comes to the most personal and treasured things going on in our lives, starting with our children and other people we love. It also can be especially the case when it comes to people we may not love very much anymore at all, if we ever really did. And I very much assure you as well that I’m far from the best or right person in the world to talk to you about these matters, as...


As former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan knows a thing or two about education policy and the reforms that come with it. But in writing this book, she had a different goal in mind: to describe how she came to be a choice advocate and to provide a guide to other parents. With all the urgency of a politician but the patience of a mother—and she is most definitely both, as well as a smart, savvy, and likable human being—Keegan reviews her childhood, her career, and her experience raising four children in a piecemeal family of divorcees and step-moms. Drawing on these experiences, she reveals three “guideposts”: (1) Parents are and should be treated as sacred because children see themselves as reflections of their parents; (2) cultivate and cherish your children’s unique traits; and (3) see and help your children see their lives in a sacred context. Weaving in her background as a linguist and speech pathologist, Keegan illustrates how parents can provide their kids with what they know will help them succeed—and that’s communication. By age 3, the average child should know roughly 1,000 words. The problem is that three-year-olds living with uneducated parents know only 750 words—and those living on welfare know fewer than 500. For Keegan, properly communicating with your children is as essential as telling them they are loved. Her next book, she promises,...


In this study, researchers from Teachers College at Columbia University analyzed data from a cohort of 77,501 New York City public school students who entered ninth grade in 2005, seeking connections between students’ high school outcomes and college persistence and their achievement, background characteristics, and school environments. Two findings stand out among many: First, students who failed New York’s third-grade reading exam had significantly lower odds of graduating high school than their peers who passed. Of those who failed third-grade reading, barely one in three graduated high school, compared to a 90 percent graduation rate among those who passed. Second, for the students who did graduate from high school, the type of diploma earned was the strongest predictor of college enrollment and persistence one year after matriculation. (New York State awards three diplomas—local, Regents, and Advanced Regents—each with different requirements.) Less than one-third of the graduates who earned a local diploma enrolled in college in Fall 2009 and were still enrolled in Spring 2010. This rate is well below those who earned either a Regents (50 percent enrolled and persisted) or an Advanced Regents diploma (80 percent). Given the findings, the researchers suggest that the “conventional assumptions” about school “need to be re-examined.” Perhaps buttressed by their third-grade reading finding, one area the authors urge states and schools to re-think is the grouping of students into grade levels based primarily on age rather than ability. And indeed, some states have gone beyond re-examining—and are in fact dismantling the “social...


Like many, I first became aware of Sal Khan and his Khan Academy when I watched his 2011 TED Talk and was blown away. I immediately jumped onto the site to begin trying practice problems and watching videos in mathematics, the financial crisis, and history. What wowed me most about the site, however, were not Sal's video lessons. Many of those are good and quite informative and instructionally sound as far as they go, but they are also sometimes kind of rudimentary and not always super engaging.

What I loved more was how the site tracked and encouraged student growth and then allowed teachers to monitor that progress. The potential seemed huge for use in traditional or flipped classrooms, yet Khan Academy was offering it all for free.

Since 2011, Khan Academy has grown by leaps and bounds—and seems to have gotten better, too. It's expanded its badging features (more on badges here) to reward students not only for mastering specific knowledge or progressing through lessons but also for being persistent or helpful to others through the site's rich coaching tools. The site also recently added a version in Spanish. Khan’s lessons are now part of multiple pilot programs in real-life classrooms. The academy has built an outstanding computer-programming site—and even has videos with Lebron James asking math and science questions. You may have seen recent TV ads promoting its partnership with Bank of America on financial literacy.

Perhaps the most impactful new feature, however, is the site's reorganization—just in...


Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute was lucky to co-host "Re-Imagining Teaching: Five Structures to Transform the Profession" with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). There was a great conversation (both in house and on Twitter), with one key takeaway standing apart from the others: The education-policy world needs to listen more to teachers.

NNSTOY executive director Katherine Basset and Fordham executive vice president Michael Petrilli kicked off the event:

The panel then turned to an extraordinary panel of teachers—all of whom are themselves in “hybrid roles,” mixing teaching and policy.

We certainly didn't forget Common Core:

Kalman R. Hettleman

Rumors are flying that Andres A. Alonso, until last June CEO of the Baltimore schools, is the frontrunner to become NYC chancellor if Democrat Bill de Blasio, as seems likely, wins the mayoralty in November. I have known and observed Dr. Alonso closely over the last six years, first as a member of the Baltimore school board that hired him and second as a policy analyst and writer on urban school reform. And it’s hard to imagine a better choice for New Yorkers.

That is, unless you are a business-as-usual administrator or principal. If so: beware. When the Baltimore school board hired him in 2007, our risky vision was to recruit a game-changer who would surpass the then-heralded superintendents in New York (Joel Klein, for whom Dr. Alonso served as a deputy chancellor), Chicago (Arne Duncan) and D.C. (Michelle Rhee). What we sought was what we got—and then some.

In his first year in Baltimore, he absorbed a large budget shortfall in large part by eliminating over 300 central-office jobs, devolving school budgets, giving principals all-but-complete autonomy, starting many non-conventional high schools, making 240 school visits, emailing staff between 5am and midnight, and quoting racing driver Mario Andretti: “If things were under control, they weren’t moving fast enough.”

That was just a start, and media handicappers of the chancellor’s race have pointed out his six-year record of accomplishment:

  • On state assessments,
  • ...

As part of the AEI Teacher Quality 2.0 series, the authors of this paper take on the delicate issue of school-staffing design. In the first two pages, they rip apart arguments others have spent years carefully constructing: Teacher pay may be too low, but, they counter, across-the-board raises are impossibly expensive for even profligate spenders ($16 billion per year, or roughly the entire Title I budget for just a $5,000 per teacher raise, according to their calculations). Professional development is also important, but won’t do much good when teachers have so little adult interaction and feedback. And of course we want able, motivated individuals to enter the profession, but they leave quickly when they find no pathway to advance professionally as they could and would in other lines of work. So what’s the alternative? The authors offer up several staffing models that have in common a reduction in the number of teachers—who, in today’s standard model, are chiefly responsible for two-dozen or so students at a time. Since the 1970s, they remind us, the number of staff in our schools has increased by 84 percent, while the number of students has only increased at least a tenth of that rate. Instead, the paper calls for giving top teachers more students or oversight over multiple classrooms, allowing those in the primary grades to specialize by subject, employ blended learning, or even teach remotely. Touchstone Charter Schools in New Jersey, for example, created a teacher career ladder by allowing “master teachers”...


The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), which gives public dollars to low-income students to escape low-performing schools for private schools of their choosing, has come under fire from the Department of Justice for “imped[ing] the desegregation processes” of two dozen school districts. Not so, says this new study in Education Next. In fact, the University of Arkansas authors find that the transfers resulting from the voucher program “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which they are located.” The government will eventually reopen, but here’s hoping that the DOJ lawsuit goes away permanently.

Reviewing the latest misguided barnburner by former Fordham trustee (and current rabble-rouser) Diane Ravitch, the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern has penned a scathing but fair rebuke. He points out that her newfound “educational romanticism”—characterized by her suggestion that all children read poetry and be freed from the demands of knowledge-rich curricula—does not just contradict her life’s work but is also terribly short-sighted, especially for low-income children: “If they’re not taught lots of content knowledge in the early grades,” Stern writes, “they’re doomed to fall further behind. They will never be able to read Walden or understand poetry.” He labels her bottomless blog a “propaganda hub for the national anti-corporate-reform coalition” with “all the subtlety of an Occupy Wall Street poster”; he faults her book for its “pie-in-the-sky” solutions;...