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.

Teachers affect student academic achievement more than any other school-based factor. As a result, states and school districts have experimented with incentive pay programs as a twofold strategy to both attract high-quality teachers and boost student performance. Evidence on the effectiveness of this tactic is mixed, but the policies can differ greatly in structure, and little is known about how the design of incentive plans might impact their effectiveness.

Enter a new National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study that examines the structure of Houston’s recently implemented incentive pay system, as well as its effect on student achievement.

The researchers analyzed data from grades 3–8 from the Houston Independent School District’s (HISD) merit pay system, ASPIRE (“Accelerating Student Progress, Increasing Results and Expectations”). ASPIRE is designed as a “rank-order tournament,” which rewards top-performing math, reading, language arts, science, and social studies teachers based on their value-added scores (estimates of the effect individual teachers have on student learning over a school year). Under ASPIRE, teachers receive a $3,870 bonus if their students receive value-added scores above the fiftieth percentile; scores above the seventy-fifth percentile result in even larger bumps—up to $7,700 per teacher.

The authors initially hypothesized that teachers who...

  • Getting teenagers to think ahead is basically impossible—just try to persuade your favorite adolescent to file his college applications before the night they’re due, or to quit doing donuts in the school parking lot before he gets a free trip to the ER. So we should be immensely encouraged by the fact that 1.4 million high school students took college courses for credit in 2014–2015. To promote this development, the Department of Education has helpfully pledged to offer some $20 million in Pell grants for low-income students to enroll in college courses while still attending high school. Dual enrollment programs like these are probably the best possible use of Pell grants; right now, as Fordham’s own Checker Finn has observed, such funds are too often used to subsidize remedial education in college for kids who didn’t learn everything they needed to in the thirteen years of K–12. Isn’t it smarter to pay for academically gifted sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to take college courses early, rather than picking up the bill for undereducated college freshmen to finally learn the stuff they were supposed to be taught in high school?
  • Nevada’s move this year to establish $5,000 education savings accounts has
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Low-income strivers—impoverished families who work hard to climb the ladder to the middle class—may be the most underserved population in America today.

In few realms is that more evident than in education reform. For twenty years, national policies have focused largely on the lowest-performing students, often to the detriment of their higher-achieving, low-income peers. Many cities—including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Syracuse—have recently made a goal of reducing the number of school suspensions and other tough-love approaches to school discipline, with little concern for the impact on the kids who come to school ready to follow the rules. These efforts have received vocal support from the Department of Education. Policymakers and educators say they that are doing this in the name of equity. But when everyone in a school is harmed by some students' unruly behavior, it’s a strange notion of fairness.

Imagine that we wanted to prioritize the needs of low-income students who demonstrated a willingness to work hard and the aptitude to achieve at high levels—the kids with the best shot to use a solid education to put poverty behind them. What might we do?

First, we would put in place “universal screening” tests to look for gifted students in elementary...

Editor's note: This post is the second entry of a three-part series on Race to the Top's legacy and the federal role in education. You can read the first entry here and the final entry here.

The super-talented Joanne Weiss, former chief of staff to Secretary Duncan, has convinced me in two recent articles that Race to the Top (RTTT) was a skillfully administered program. Weiss and her colleagues cannily handled public transparency, technical assistance to applicants, and intra-department coordination. They deserve credit for the how of RTTT.

But the articles don’t directly address whether the federal government should’ve undertaken RTTT. Obviously, the administration would say yes. But why? The articles imply an answer, one consistent with progressive ideology and the administration’s approach to health care, environmental regulation, and much more: Expert central administrators can and should solve complex social problems, and the federal government is the logical perch from which to do so.

In Education NextWeiss is transparent about the federal government’s ambitions. “Race to the Top aimed to drive systems-level change,” she acknowledges. The administration wanted “comprehensive and coherent” state agendas aligned with the administration’s preferences on standards, tests, teacher evaluations, and more. RTTT didn’t aspire to influence “discrete silos”; it wanted...

School finance systems are complicated, often controversial, and subject to a certain amount of speculation. Are public schools “overfunded” or “underfunded”? Are they wasting precious taxpayer dollars or putting them to effective use? From which sources are they receiving their funds, and what strings might be attached? Are our public institutions on solid financial footing, or are they in dire straits?

These are fundamental questions that parents and taxpayers have every right to ask and to which they’re owed clear answers. One crucial disclosure is a district’s statement of revenues and expenditures—akin to a business’s income and expense statement. This report describes how a district raised revenue and how it spent those funds during the past fiscal year.

But you may be surprised to learn that the state revenues received and transferred to charters are also included in a district’s financial statement. You wouldn’t know it by simply looking at the statement: Consider, for example, the statement of revenues and expenditures for Cincinnati City Schools in the figure below.

You’ll notice that the presentation doesn’t clearly display the $57 million received to educate Cincinnati charter students;...

Schools have long been championed as places where we can level the playing field for low-income children. Unfortunately, that leveling doesn’t happen very often. Instead, schools have become the epicenter of not only the achievement gap, but also the opportunity gap— the inequitable distribution of resources and quality opportunities that contribute to the achievement gap.   

The authors of a recent Manhattan Institute (MI) policy brief discuss how income stagnation and inequality can limit opportunities for kids. Specifically, the brief references “the vastly different pathways available to students from different backgrounds.” To be fair, these gaps don’t exist just because of schools. But as Robert Putnam argues in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, “Even if schools didn’t cause the growing opportunity gap—and there’s little evidence that they have—they might well be a prime place to fix it.”

So how do we get schools to take on the opportunity gap? What can we do? My colleague, Mike Petrilli, has tackled this question before and emphasizes the importance of social capital. Putnam, on the other hand, emphasizes monetary capital; he advocates allocating money to schools for the exclusive goal of ending the opportunity...

What if federal aid for college students were focused exclusively on those who are truly ready for college? What if we stopped subsidizing remedial courses on campuses and insisted that students pursuing higher learning be prepared for college-level courses (none too strenuous nowadays in many places)? And what if those courses were also made available to young people even before they matriculated to a four-year program?

That would be a revelation and a revolution. But it might also do more to get young Americans and their schools serious about college readiness than anything we’ve dreamed up previously. It would save money. And it would end a great fraud that causes many college students to drop out—usually with heavy loan debts to either repay or default on—when they realize that they’ve been sorely misled as to their true preparedness for advanced-level academics.

Consider the irony: Today, federal financial support is available for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds to study high school math and English after they reach a college campus (a vast percentage of them are required to take these remedial classes); yet such aid is unavailable to academically aggressive sixteen- and seventeen-year olds from low-income households, who could accelerate their academic progress by taking...

The folks at ReSchool Colorado have big changes in mind for education in the Centennial State. In the works since 2013, this project of the Donnell-Kay Foundation aims to imagine a new education system that “pushes the boundaries of current thought and practice, and better prepares learners to be happy, productive, and healthy people and professionals.” The group has spent the last two years searching for breakthrough innovations through small, discreet projects they call prototypes. The outcomes of these prototypes are meant to inform a redesign of the larger education system in 2016.

A detailed new article gives us a nuts-and-bolts look at one of these prototypes. In this case, the scale was very small: nineteen low-income immigrant families with young children living in Boulder public housing. The objective was to provide everything that these families might need to access high-quality educational enrichment experiences: trips to zoos and museums, swimming lessons, and the like. In short, the kinds of out-of-school activities that rich suburban parents tend to take for granted. The ReSchool team provided, among other things, funding via debit cards (mini-vouchers) to pay for the activities; detailed information guides geared to the knowledge level of the families (meeting...

Five years ago, Ohio established an academic distress commission for Youngstown City Schools that was to oversee wide-scale improvement efforts. Youngstown had slipped into “Academic Emergency” (the equivalent of an F on today’s report cards) and failed to make adequate yearly progress for four consecutive years. It was the first district to sink low enough to activate a statute imposing state intervention.

In 2010, I wrote about Youngstown’s “unfocused, expensive, and misdirected” approach to improving schools, which included spending $2 million on reducing student-teacher ratios, “deploying a comprehensive system of outreach and support” for students that included “a community asset map,” and creating leadership teams whose sole purpose was to foster “collaboration, trust, and communication.” The original improvement plan was riddled with vague and meaningless language. Worse, it demanded no reforms that could actually move the needle on student learning: changes to how teachers teach and are evaluated, how principals make decisions affecting day-to-day operations, or how the district might carve out space for innovations typically stifled by collective bargaining agreements.

Predictably, little has changed since 2010. An update on the district’s recovery plan in March 2013 revealed an alarmingly unfocused approach by the commission,...

  • The plight of boys in school, and particularly boys from underprivileged backgrounds, is a story we’ve all gotten used to hearing about. Whether in our home state of Ohio or in international educational utopias like Finland, young men are lagging behind their female classmates in testing performance, high school graduation, college attendance, and a slew of disciplinary issues. The New York Times’s Upshot blog has an article on the academic gender gap that delves into the existing research to reach a distressing conclusion: The cumulative stress of all social hindrances, from domestic violence to parental absence to poverty, impose a greater toll on boys than girls. Although girls in every setting are more likely than boys to be adequately prepared for kindergarten (and less likely to rack up absences once they begin), their comparative edge grows much wider within deprived populations like immigrant and low-income families. With forces like this arrayed against them, perhaps it’s no wonder that these boys are underrepresented in selective high schools and colleges.
  • Let’s take a moment to lavish some praise on a state whose merits are too seldom celebrated: Delaware. Last week, the First State became just the sixth state
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