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.


Judging by the rhetoric of some legislators and wonks, it may come as a shock that public policy is not the stuff of magic whereby just the right regulatory language will, like one of Harry Potter’s spells, instantly reduce a monster of a problem to dust. Instead, policy is about the careful consideration of a series of tradeoffs. Education reformers in particular have been accused of leaping from one panacea to the next, rather than carefully considering practical alternatives. That doesn’t mean, however, there aren’t still a number of critical ingredients that must be a part of any witch’s brew to cure what ails our education system. One of them is the reform of, if not removal of, tenure. 

Everyone has his or her own list of prerequisites to a great education system. For some, it might be small class sizes and wraparound services that reach the “whole child.” In my view, it includes parent-empowering school choice, a reduction of the compliance culture to promote innovation, and strong standards and accountability. The other essential items on the list? Staffing policies that allow us to recruit, retain, and reward the best and brightest would-be educators and leaders.

We have countless teachers who would meet anyone’s definition of “outstanding,” but we are missing a great deal more due to illogical policies that exist in nearly every state, for example, those that protect bad teachers and get rid...

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[Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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 herehere, and here.]

Andy’s odyssey: Part four

The most convincing argument against conservatism is that by defending longstanding institutions it ends up protecting longstanding injustices.

Yes, there is a prima facie case for preservation: It’s sensible to safeguard things that have stood the test of time—libraries, respect for elders, voluntary community associations, the Western canon, charity. But enormous harm is done by protecting old, immoral institutions, like serfdom, honor killings, and the denial of women’s suffrage.

A corollary of the preserve-first approach, that change should occur gradually, promises wise, prudent adjustments. But it too can injure grievously. Ending the military targeting of civilians—once a common wartime practice—needed to happen immediately, not slowly. This understanding is reflected in Gladstone’s adage, “Justice delayed is justice denied;” Goldwater’s admonition, “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue;” and Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail rebuke of those advocating patience.

The dark sides of preservation and gradual change have been illuminated by the events of Ferguson and a recent Atlantic article on reparations. They illustrate with agonizing clarity why dramatic change is sometimes required; provide insight into the tragic...

This is the year when nearly every state must begin using assessments aligned to the Common Core, or other “college-and career-ready” standards, Education Week notes. And unlike last year, “this year’s achievement results will be a cornerstone of states’ public accountability reporting.”

The United States ranks third (trailing Switzerland and Singapore) in competitiveness, based on several factors, including “an excellent university system,” according to a new report from the World Economic Forum. In education, the U.S. is seventh (of 144 countries) in higher ed; in primary ed, the U.S. ranks thirty-sixth.

All students in the United Kingdom will learn computer coding as young as age five starting this year due to curriculum changes. In the U.S., “very few elementary age students are learning to code in U.S. schools, though the nonprofit Code.org is trying to change that,” reports Education Week.

Heard the one about how U.S. schools have never been more diverse? County-level maps produced by the Urban Institute show schools are actually less likely to be diverse than before. Blame housing patterns.

The New Yorker rediscovers “Up the Down Staircase,” the 1965 best-seller and “the most enduring account we have of teachers’ lives,” and discovers it’s out of print.

Noted Glenn Peters as one of very few male preschool teachers in New York. According to NPR, “barely 2 percent...

Long before today’s education-reform movement was born, indeed long before A Nation at Risk, there was the Council for Basic Education (CBE), founded in 1956 by such notables as Jacques Barzun, Hyman Rickover, and Mortimer Smith. They believed, as do we, that “there is an intimate relationship between a healthy democracy and the ideal of excellence in education.”

For nearly half a century, CBE fought the good fight for excellence in American K–12 education, for rigorous standards, excellent teaching, and curriculum built upon serious content. For decades, it was very nearly the only voice to caution about the excesses of progressivism, relativism, and equity-at-the-expense-of-quality.

And for more than twenty years, from the dawn of special education to the enactment of Goals 2000, this invaluable organization was captained by A. Graham Down, who passed away on Saturday, a day after celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday at his beloved Cosmos Club.

Equipped with a plummy Oxbridge accent, as befits a superbly educated gentleman—history, music, education, and more—who moved to the U.S. from England at age twenty-five, Graham was as close to a Renaissance man as we have known in person. A dedicated and accomplished musician, widely read in many fields, a devotee of the humanities and the English language, a passionate education reformer, a raconteur and bon vivant, a tireless leader, fine writer, and owner of a grand sense of humor, his long career included stints as head of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, book reviewer for Education Next,...

Approximately 1.85 million students—or 57 percent of the U.S. high school class of 2014— took the ACT in 2014. That’s an 18 percent uptick since 2010, despite the overall number of graduates decreasing by 3 percent. Twelve states boast a 100 percent participation rate; yet all of them, predictably, have composite scores below the national average of 21. The highest marks belong to states in which just 20–30 percent of graduates took the ACT: Massachusetts (composite score of 24.3), New Hampshire, and Connecticut (each with scores of 24.2). Diversity is also up. The proportion of test takers who are Hispanic has increased since 2010, while the percentage of white students sitting for the ACT has dropped. College readiness, as measured by the ACT, remains stagnant, and achievement gaps persist. Students who meet at least three out of four of the ACT’s subject-specific college-readiness benchmarks are deemed to have a good shot at success freshman year. In 2013, 53 percent of white students met the math benchmark, compared to a mere 14 percent of African American students and 29 percent Hispanic students. This year, numbers are down one percentage point for both white and Hispanic pupils, while African American kids still register a paltry 14 percent. The numbers are nearly identical for reading, with no more than a one-point change in any of the three groups. Worse yet, the report notes that a significant number of test-takers who say they plan to go to college fail to actually do so. In...

Two new studies add to the growing body of peer effects research that confirms what seems self-evident: learning alongside motivated, smart students enhances student outcomes. The first examines the peer effect on pre-K students diagnosed with a disability. Researchers measured student achievement among 670 students, roughly half with an IEP, in eighty-three classrooms in one Midwestern state, using teacher ratings of students’ language ability gains between the fall and spring of a single school year. IEP students appear apt to languish, language-wise, if enrolled in a low-skilled classroom; they do better when mainstreamed into heterogeneous settings. The second study uses Philadelphia public-schools data on nearly 35,000 elementary-school students who took the Stanford 9 exams during the mid- to late 1990s. The analyst employs a few different empirical strategies to untangle the true peer effect from other confounding factors. The main finding: elementary-school students in this urban district gained significantly when learning in a classroom with high-achieving peers, compared to similar students in an average classroom. The converse also applies. Students lost ground when placed in classrooms of lower average achievement. Interestingly, achievement also significantly increased in classrooms with more girls, even if the girls weren’t higher achieving. Predictably, achievement sank in classrooms containing more children with behavioral problems. As the proverb goes, iron sharpens iron—the research indicates that children stand to benefit when learning with suitable peers. Yet, as Daniel Willingham points out, it’s unclear whether enough well-mannered, high-aptitude students exist for all their peers who might benefit from...

This much-discussed study, published in the current edition of Education Next, finds that “oversubscribed charter schools” in Boston produce strong test-score gains but “do not improve students’ fluid cognitive skills.” Put another way, the study shows high-performing charters are getting great results improving “crystallized knowledge”—but fluid skills, not so much. Crystallized knowledge is prior knowledge—vocabulary, math facts, and bits of mental furniture. Fluid intelligence, in contrast, is your ability to think, reason, and solve problems. The two combine into overall cognitive ability. West and his colleagues report that “effective schools help their students achieve at higher levels than expected based on their fluid cognitive skills.” Bravo, charters. But wait. What does it mean if these putatively high-performing schools aren’t moving the needle on fluid skills? Jay P. Greene describes the finding as “potentially unsettling” and notes that, “if fluid skills really matter, ed reform is in a serious pickle” because reform efforts “appear to be increasingly emphasizing (and measuring) crystallized knowledge to the exclusion of fluid skills.” Enter University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, who says the results are “fascinating, but they are also easy to misinterpret.” Researchers have long had a hard time finding evidence that fluid intelligence is malleable. It may simply be hard to improve, he notes. “So it’s inaccurate to interpret these results as showing that charters are making kids good at scoring well on math tests, but they haven’t really taught them math because they haven’t improved their cognitive skill,” Willingham writes....

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham takes a second look at a much-discussed study that seems to indicate charter schools raise test scores, but not “fluid intelligence.” The results are “fascinating, but they are also easy to misinterpret,” he writes.

Boston is getting a “chief of education,” who will cultivate relationships with allschools in Boston—public, charter, parochial, and private—plus Boston’s colleges and universities—“although he will not have direct power over those institutions,” notes the Boston Globe.

Writing at Slate, Dana Goldstein says the school principal “just might be the most important figure in school reform.” But you already knew that.

California parents are deciding against vaccinating their kindergarten-age children at twice the rate they did seven years ago, the Los Angeles Times reports. Health experts say that’s contributing to the reemergence of measles.  

Seattle’s First Place Scholars today becomes the first charter school to open in the state of Washington.

TIME Magazine reports the San Francisco 49ers have a plan to bring in sixty kids a day from Bay Area schools for daylong STEM education programs, focusing on the engineering of stadium construction and the physics of football.

As Lee County, Florida opts out of opting out, Fordham’s Petrilli notes that school boards might take similar “symbolic actions,” but “at the end of the...

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Cato’s Neal McCluskey—from opposite sides of the Common Core debate—coauthor an op-ed calling on both sides to “stop fighting over basic facts, and tackle crucial questions,” like will Common Core improve outcomes?”

The Wall Street Journal warns religious schools eager to take up NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's offer to subsidize preschool students that if they accept “favors from the government often they may come to regret the attached strings.”

The head of the American Historical Association defends the College Board’s AP History framework in a New York Times op-ed, noting a “once comforting story has become, in the hands of scholars, more complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling.”

A new nonprofit called Education Post launched today in hopes of creating “an honest and civil conversation” about education...and was immediately attacked on Twitter....

photo credit: afsart via photopin cc

Last week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal sued the U.S. Department of Education over the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), with a particular focus on the role that Race to the Top (RTTT) played in encouraging their adoption. And three days later, rumors arose that Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin might haul that same agency into court for revoking its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver. Together these two suits bring some of the most criticized recent federal education policies under legal scrutiny. But President Obama’s conditional waivers are much more vulnerable to legal challenge than is his Race to the Top initiative. Here’s why:

Jindal’s lawsuit claims that the federal government has used legislation to incentivize state adoption of the CCSS. The complaint asks the court to (1) declare that these actions violate the United States Constitution and a number of federal statutes and (2) enjoin the federal government from continuing. There are a number of lenses through which the court could view these actions.

Let’s first look at the constitutional claim, which has virtually no chance of success. Louisiana alleges that the feds’ standards push violates state sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment, which reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

The federal Race to the Top program,...