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.

The effort to improve educational outcomes for African American students can fairly be described as the animating impulse behind the education reform movement broadly. Hence, it’s downright depressing to repeat some of the figures in this report: “On the 2015 NAEP, only 18 percent of African American fourth graders were found to be proficient in reading, and only 19 percent scored proficient in math,” the authors note. “The eighth-grade numbers were even worse, with only 16 percent of African American students rated proficient in reading and only 13 percent rated proficient in math.” College and career readiness? Not so much. Quick: In how many states did more than 5 percent of African American students graduate having passed at least one AP exam in a STEM subject? (Three: Colorado, Massachusetts, and Hawaii.) How many states with five hundred or more African American ACT test-takers had 17 percent or more score as college-ready on all four tested subjects? Not one.

Depressed yet?

Still there are some examples of significant progress: Twenty-five years ago, only 1 percent of Washington, D.C.’s eighth-grade African American students were proficient in math; today it’s 13 percent. High school graduation rates for black students are on the rise—as...

Perhaps it’s because, as a nation, we’ve come around on teacher quality. Or perhaps it’s because so many of the policy prescriptions that contribute to improving the teacher corps are so dry, technical, and largely beneath the hurly-burly of public debate. Either way, NCTQ’s 2015 Policy Yearbook is notable for the substantial amount of positive change it documents, with states “continuing down a reform path focused on teacher effectiveness” and “fewer states out of step with the prevailing trend each passing year.” What the report fails to note is that NCTQ itself can claim substantial credit for creating this tipping point, amassing a substantial record of effectiveness in a very short amount of time.

Getting religion on teacher quality is one thing. Ending our sinful ways is a very different matter. The average state teacher policy grade for 2015 is a C-minus, a mark that is “still far too low to ensure teacher effectiveness nationwide,” NCTQ notes. Yet just six years ago, in the 2009 yearbook, the average was a D. The pews are beginning to fill up.

Better evidence of improvement can be seen state-by-state. In 2015, thirteen states earned grades between B-minus and B-plus (six years ago, no...

  • There’s a reason we don’t bounce our grandkids on our knees and delight them with stories of how Congress muscled through the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984. As the saying goes, there’s nothing pretty about the way the sausage gets made. But for those who were begging for a new federal education law, Politico’s postmortem on the passage of the Every Student Succeed Act provides an inside look at a splendid, savory knackwurst of statutory goodness. In the year following the 2014 Republican midterm landslides, draft legislation had to overcome anti-testing fervor from teachers’ unions, the remnants of the anti-Common Core crusade, and the sudden resignation of House Speaker John Boehner. Between clearing these obstacles and stitching together the perennial philosophical differences of Left and Right, the ESSA used up seven or eight of its nine lives. Thankfully, it’s now a matter of settled law.
  • Speaking of the backlash against high academic standards: Reporting out of Colorado suggests that we might need to think differently about the opt-out movement and its adherents. Though the bulk of the students who absented themselves from the state’s PARCC test were indeed residents of wealthier, high-performing districts—you know, where the
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At a time when the national conversation is focused on lagging upward mobility and yawning income inequality, it is no surprise that many educators point to poverty as the explanation for American students’ mediocre test scores compared to their peers in other countries. If teachers in struggling U.S. schools taught in Finland, says Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, they would flourish—in part because of “support from homes unchallenged by poverty.” Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff at Columbia University’s Teachers College argue that middling test scores reflect a “poverty crisis” in the United States, not an “education crisis.” Adding union muscle to the argument, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten calls poverty “the elephant in the room” that accounts for poor student performance.

But does this explanation hold water?

It’s an important question. If critics of education reform are correct that our schools are doing as well as can be expected given the economic challenges that their students face, they could also be right in saying that school reform is beside the point, misguided, or even doing more harm than good.

So what does the evidence show? To prove that poverty is the major factor driving America’s meager academic achievement, at...


During a high-visibility Supreme Court hearing last week on the Fisher v. University of Texas admissions case, Justice Scalia made some ill-considered comments on race in higher education: "There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well." Then, referencing a case filing, he added, “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don't come from schools like the University of Texas,” he said. “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”

Myriad commentators went after him. Others came to his defense. And still others landed somewhere in-between. We don’t view Scalia as a racist, but there’s no denying that his statements can be interpreted as suggesting that black kids are inescapably destined for the slow track. It’s not surprising that people are offended.

It ought to go without saying, but of course there is nothing inherently inferior about poor and minority...

Here at Fordham, you can usually find us gleefully dinging New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on his education policies. When he was first pushing his universal pre-K initiative a few years back, we argued that he should have tailored the program more narrowly to the kids who needed it most. And please don’t get us started on hizzoner’s ill-advised tussle with Eva Moskowitz and high-performing charters. But that’s the duty of a gadfly: to have fun critiquing powerful figures when they veer off course.

Now I’m doing the opposite by unhappily conceding that de Blasio is absolutely correct, at least on one issue. It doesn’t particularly grieve me to find myself in agreement with the mayor personally; I’m just deflated about the issue of our concurrence—namely school safety. The mayor is obviously and tragically right that private and religious schools should be afforded public funds to pay for security personnel. The city council made the right decision in passing a bill that would make $20 million available for that purpose, and de Blasio deserves credit for lending it his support.

In an ideal world, education commentators—to say nothing of the students whose interests we try to promote—would be able to...

NOTE: Chad Aldis addressed the Ohio Board of Education in Columbus this afternoon. These are his written remarks in full.

Thank you, President Gunlock and state board members, for allowing me to offer public comment today.

My name is Chad Aldis. I am the vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-oriented nonprofit focused on research, analysis, and policy advocacy with offices in Columbus, Dayton, and Washington, D.C. I testified to you in September urging the state to quickly and thoroughly implement the charter school provisions contained in HB 2. I also emphasized during my testimony the importance of moving quickly to get the sponsor performance review (SPR)—which was required by legislation passed in 2012, but took three years to develop and pilot—back on track. The success of Ohio’s recent reforms lie heavily on the SPR, so the department deserves tremendous credit for installing an independent panel to review the SPR and draft recommendations quickly. It is a strong sign that the department is serious about implementation and sponsor quality.

We are pleased to say that we agree with many of the recommendations and commend the panel for its thorough...

It’s difficult to get your arms around the idea of suspending a three- or four-year-old from preschool. For most of us (if we’re even able to remember back that far), pre-K discipline basically meant quiet time in the corner, miserably sulking while our friends laughed and colored. Sending a child away from class, whether for a few hours or a few days, just seems disproportionate to the level of mischief we’d expect from one so young. That cognitive dissonance perhaps accounts the tone of disbelief in Melinda Anderson’s recent Atlantic article on the subject. Tallying a spate of seemingly frivolous dismissals for offenses like potty accidents and inconsolable crying—fairly common occurrences among the juicebox set, we can probably agree—she warns that “toddlers are racking up punishments that leave many parents and child experts bewildered.”

She’s not wrong. More and more commentators are wondering what transgression could possibly warrant suspension for pupils still sporting pull-ups. The key evidence in Anderson’s own piece is the story of Tunette Powell, a mother of two sons who were suspended from their preschool a combined eight times. Powell originally wrote about her experiences in a widely discussed Washington Post piece  touching on some of the same issues that have colored the discipline...

Based on a national sample of thirty-seven thousand public school teachers, this report from the National Center for Education Statistics’s School and Staffing Survey (SASS) looks at teacher autonomy in the classroom during the 2003–04, 2007–08, and 2011–12 school years. The news in brief: Teachers are somewhat less likely to feel that they have a great deal of autonomy than they have been in the past. But they still report a degree of professional freedom that most of us would surely envy.

To measure autonomy, researchers asked teachers how much “actual control” they have in their classrooms over six areas of planning and teaching: selecting textbooks and other classroom materials; content, topics, and skills to be taught; teaching techniques; evaluating and grading students; disciplining students; and determining the amount of homework to be assigned. Teacher autonomy is “positively associated with teachers’ job satisfaction and teacher retention,” the report notes. Those who perceive that they have less autonomy are “more likely to leave their positions, either by moving from one school to another or leaving the profession altogether.”

With nearly three out of four teachers still reporting a “great deal” of autonomy (down from 82 percent in 2003–04), it hardly seems...

  • To everyone except the students and educators who labor to start them, high-performing charter schools must seem like fully formed miracle factories. They sprout from Mark Zuckerberg’s largesse, produce outstanding academic results, and win facilities conflicts with crusading big-city mayors. This week, the Hechinger Report spins the incredible (and incredibly detailed) story of how these places actually come together. In three interlocking narratives focused on a first-time principal, a veteran teacher, and an incoming freshman, the account details the emergence of Brooklyn Ascend High in the daunting Brownsville neighborhood of New York City. The school, organized around an ideal of civic service and employing a nontraditional discipline structure, offers an ideal backdrop against which to examine the challenges of establishing an academic culture and galvanizing a faculty. For readers who wonder why more charter profiles can’t offer the fractured perspectives and compelling mystery of Rashomon, here’s your (regrettably samurai-less) answer.
  • The Texas Board of Education rules over the state’s textbooks like a juice-drunk toddler rules over his sandbox: utterly, and hilariously. If they’re not pondering the knotty question of whether to include creationism in science curriculum (guess I thought Spencer Tracy settled that one), they’re helpfully reinserting
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