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.

School leaders are responsible for nearly everything that happens in a school—from creating a positive culture to tracking data to evaluating instruction to hiring (or sometimes firing) the teachers who most affect student achievement. Despite this extraordinary amount of responsibility, many policymakers and reformers devote their time to crafting policies that affect teachers rather than principals. In light of this, we at Fordham began thinking over some important questions: Are schools doing an effective job of recruiting, selecting, and retaining great school leaders? Are principals being trained effectively, and is there meaningful ongoing support? Are principals empowered to make decisions and challenge the status quo? What’s the right balance between autonomy and accountability?

At a breakfast event on Tuesday, we hosted presentations and a panel discussion from a few experts in the field. First we talked with Dayton Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Lori Ward, who shared how difficult it is for a large, urban district like hers to recruit and retain effective principals.

Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Lori Ward

Ward explained that of the 28 buildings in DPS, 20 are led by a principal with three years of...

Nearly everyone agrees that high-quality pre-kindergarten is a worthy investment. Calls to expand it at public expense stem from a handful of well-known (and very costly) intensive models that appeared to deliver long-term positive effects for poor children: improved school readiness, increased graduation rates, and even the mitigation of risk factors like teen pregnancy and incarceration. These oft-cited outcomes are compelling. So is the urge to level the playing field for children who arrive at school with a thirty million word gap. But an actionable definition of “high quality” remains elusive, and studies of large, scaled-up pre-K programs have shown mixed results.

This study from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute adds valuable evidence to the discussion of whether, when, and how pre-kindergarten is a worthy investment. In 2009, in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Education, the institute launched a rigorous study of the state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program (TN-VPK). It’s a full-day program that targets exceptionally at-risk four-year-olds; researchers tracked two cohorts of children through the end of their third-grade years. Oversubscribed programs enabled a random design whereby children enrolled in TN-VPK were the treatment group and those waitlisted (and ultimately not admitted) became the control...

The relationship between teacher experience and quality has been widely studied, as has the relationship between teacher experience and salary. The relationship between experience and total compensation—which includes both salary and retirement benefits—is often overlooked. In a new report, researchers from the Manhattan Institute have thrown open the curtains by calculating the total compensation for teachers with master’s degrees and varying years of experience in the country’s ten largest public school systems. They explain that, although the preponderance of research demonstrates that quality differences between teachers based upon experience tend to plateau after 5–7 years, most public school teachers still earn salaries according to fixed schedules that are based entirely on years of experience and advanced degrees. Retirement benefits are distributed in a similar way. Approximately 89 percent of public school teachers earn retirement benefits under final-average-salary-defined benefit (FAS-DB) pension plans, meaning that teachers earn a lifetime annuity available only after they reach their respective plans’ thresholds. These thresholds, like a salary schedule, are based on a combination of age and years of service. As a result, FAS-DB plans often backload retirement benefits.

The scale of backloading varies across plans. In New York City, for example, a teacher earns...

  • 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
  • ...

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:
  • ...

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...

Pages