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.

  • When the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to fire fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith last week over allegations of sexual misconduct, its members were doubtless aware of the potential for blowback. Esquith, whose myriad awards and world-renowned classroom productions of Shakespeare have made him the district’s most recognizable employee, can count influential friends both inside and outside the school system. And the circumstances of his termination—decided by a closed-door tribunal following an extensive investigation into his private life—do not argue in its favor. Now Esquith’s attorneys have filed a $1 billion class-action lawsuit against the district on behalf of thousands of teachers, claiming that they were targeted for dismissal because of their age and pending retirement windfalls. The accusations lodged against Esquith are ill defined, but serious. If accurate, they are surely serious enough to merit public examination of his record and methods. But if, as some prominent supporters claim, the investigation was a panicked overcorrection in response to earlier scandals, this story could become more bizarre and tragic than it has already. Either way, this is a disciplinary process in dire need of greater transparency.
  • The saddest and most illuminating thing you’ll read all
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Intel’s recent announcement that it will cease sponsoring and underwriting the prestigious Science Talent Search, which it took over from Westinghouse in 1998, is another nail in the coffin of gifted education in the United States.

Unlike many European and Asian countries, which are awash in academic competitions, Olympiads, and other status-laden contests that bright students vie to win, American K‒12 education has relatively few that anyone notices. There is, of course, the National Spelling Bee, which Scripps has valiantly stuck with since 1941. But spelling bees are for middle schoolers. The big deal for high schoolers, especially those with a bent toward STEM subjects, has long been the Science Talent Search, which President George H. W. Bush called the “Super Bowl of science.”

Intel’s turnabout surprised former CEO Craig Barrett and disheartened many of us who care about both STEM and gifted education. It’s another sign of America’s inattention to its high-ability learners, especially those from disadvantaged circumstances. That neglect is what triggered the publication of our new book, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students. All sorts of data—from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, from research studies like the 2011 Fordham...

For viewers eager to hear the Democratic presidential candidates’ stances on K–12 education policy, the Tuesday’s primary debate was a disappointment. However, the two front-runners, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, did speak at length about the necessity of college affordability and their plans for tuition-free campuses.

“A college degree today is the equivalent of what a high school degree was fifty years ago,” Sanders said. “And what we said fifty years ago and one hundred years ago is that every kid in this country should be able to get a high school education regardless of the income of their family. I think we have to say that is true for everybody going to college.”

Clinton had previously criticized the senator’s proposal, saying that it would force taxpayers to pick up the tab for children of billionaires like Donald Trump. Sanders remarked that under his policies, billionaires would pay significantly more in taxes.

Clinton supports free college tuition, but said that students should work at least ten hours a week while in school to attain it. She also said that she wants to give the forty million Americans carrying student debt the opportunity to refinance...

Ohio’s recent win of federal Charter School Program (CSP) funds has garnered much backlash. Former Governor Ted Strickland went so far as to send a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan requesting that he reconsider giving Ohio the grant. All five Democrats in Ohio’s congressional delegation sent their own letter to Duncan asking questions about the conditions of the grant and whether it will be used to help charter oversight.  

Two facts are overlooked by critics in the midst of the naysaying: 1) the overall track record of CSP grant recipients in our state is solid (as we’ll see below), and 2) by infusing much-needed resources into Ohio’s charter sector, the program enables the best schools to replicate, could draw in top-notch charter school models from other states, and might even crowd out the state’s worst schools—both of the district and charter variety.

The calls to delay or rescind the money are absurd. Most of those speaking out publicly have clear political agendas. Ohio certainly needs to restore public confidence in its charter sector, and the legislature’s bipartisan passage of comprehensive charter school reform is a good start. A...

A new study out by the National Center for Education Statistics uses data from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress to examine the black-white achievement gap. Authors use the eighth-grade math assessment and evaluate how the size of the gap corresponds to a school’s percentage of black students (what they term “density”).

They find that on average, white students attended schools that were 9 percent black, and black students attended schools that were 48 percent black. The highest-density schools were mostly in cities and Southern states; low-density schools were mostly in rural areas. Seventy-seven percent of public schools qualify as “lowest-density” (0–20 percent black students), while 10 percent are designated “highest-density” (60–100 percent black).

After controlling for various school, teacher, and student characteristics, the authors found that only white and black male achievement was affected by black student density; black male outcomes were worse in the highest-density schools than the lowest. Interestingly, the average achievement for white males in moderate density schools (40–60 percent black) was higher than the average achievement of their peers in lowest-density schools. In the end, the black-white achievement gap for males is greatest in the highest-density schools; for females (regardless of race), the gap...

  • If there’s one thing we know about standardized testing, it’s that parents absolutely loathe it. With outrage building across the country over Common Core and its affiliated assessments, it’s no surprise that scads of irate parents have been pulling their kids out of tests. Why, just look at the public opinion polli—oh, that’s weird. According to a new survey conducted by the Education Post, parents aren’t actually incandescent with anti-assessment fervor. Forty-four percent of polled parents say that the tests are fair, versus 38 percent who claim that they’re unfair (18 percent say that they’re unsure). The results pretty closely track those of the 2015 Education Next poll, which found that two-thirds of both parents and the public at large support federally mandated testing. All polls come with caveats (a slight manipulation of wording can skew results dramatically), but reformers should greet these results as welcome evidence of parental patience and wisdom.
  • Chicago was probably a lot more fun in the 1920s, when bootleg liquor flowed freely, gangsters and molls packed the speakeasies, and tough guys spontaneously broke into Bugsy Malone-style song. The good news is that the outlaw tradition carries on in the school district:
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The Asian American Achievement Paradox, a new book by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, prompted New York Times columnist Nick Kristof to pen a provocative column on Sunday. Kristof agreed that “the success of Asian-Americans is a tribute to hard work, strong families and passion for education,” but went on to caution that “because one group can access the American dream does not mean that all groups can.”

I’m not that bleak. Though nobody’s education system can completely compensate for heedless parents, slothful ways, and an apathetic attitude, the truth is that policy does matter. Schools can do more than Kristof seems to think to help more kids climb the ladder toward the American dream.

My new book with Brandon Wright, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students, looks closely at why American public education has been doing such a lackluster job helping smart children reach their full potential; how this failure of will, policy, and program is particularly devastating to high-ability youngsters from disadvantaged circumstances; and how a number of other countries do better than us.

The Asian nations in our study (Singapore, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) do all of this especially well. And yes, family...

Matt Barnum

In a series of blog posts (IIIIIIIV), Jay Greene argues against the “high-regulation approach” to school choice. I’m going to focus on the final two posts, in which Greene argues that student achievement tests are poor proxies for school quality and that they’re not correlated with other measures of quality.

I think Greene is right to a large extent. But he undersells the value of tests.

It’s pretty clear that the ability of a school or teacher to increase students’ standardized test scores is associated with long-run outcomes. Let’s dig in to some evidence:

  • The well-known Chetty study used a rigorous quasi-experiment to show that teachers with high value-added scores (which are based on standardized tests) produced higher income, greater college attendance, and lower teen pregnancy among students. (In the comments of his post, Greene acknowledges this study but describes the effects as small. I disagree, considering we are describing the effects of a single teacher at a single grade level.)
  • A different Chetty study reports that “students who were randomly assigned to higher-quality classrooms in grades K–3—as measured by classmates' end-of-class test scores—have higher earnings, college attendance rates, and other outcomes.”
  • Hanushek finds that international academic achievement
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Boehner is out! McCarthy is in! No, wait, McCarthy is out! Maybe Paul Ryan is in? Or even John Kline?!? What will this mean for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

It reminds of this famous Buddhist story:

An old farmer had worked his crops for many years. One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe," the farmer replied.

The next morning, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "Maybe," said the farmer.

So will the current House chaos kill off reauthorization chances this year?



In case you’ve been hibernating away from news lately, the Ohio General Assembly passed landmark charter school law reform legislation yesterday. HB 2 had a long gestation and filled up a lot of news coverage over that time. The clearing of the final hurdle did not disappoint in terms of additional coverage. Here’s a selection:

  1. To many observers, the biggest hurdle was not the floor votes in the House and Senate, but the conference committee that took up the Senate changes to the original House bill. The concern was that the bill would come out of committee “watered down” or compromised in its efforts to strengthen accountability and transparency for charter schools and their sponsors and operators. In the end, it came out of conference on Tuesday unscathed and with bicameral and bipartisan support. As Fordham’s Chad Aldis said, “It contains provisions that charter advocates and opponents alike have urged for a decade.” Whew. (Columbus Dispatch, 10/6/15)
  2. The AP also covered the favorable report of HB2 out of the conference committee. As Chad told them, “This won't
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