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 introduction of the Common Core standards is shaking up the $7 billion textbook industry, according to this great piece by Sarah Garland. Traditionally monopolized by a few very large publishing Goliaths, such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the standards shift now favors small start-ups, which are nimbler and more eager to embrace change. Gadfly cheers the possibility that the Common Core could break up the behemoths’ oligopoly and pave the way for the little-but-fierce Davids, like Core Knowledge.

For the last few months, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett has steadfastly refused to release $45 million of federal funds earmarked for the Philly schools until the teacher union agreed to major concessions, including a pay cut. But on Wednesday afternoon—with the union unwavering and civil-rights groups beginning to circle (and after the tragic death of young girl from asthma at a school that, due to budget cuts, did not have a nurse)—Corbett relented, arguing that he was satisfied with the other reforms made by the district. Which was probably the right call.

We know this much: Moody’s investment analysts don’t much care for parental choice, but they are concerned about the credit-worthiness of school districts. The latest Moody’s report shows that as charter schools gain public school market share in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., they’re putting financial stress on their local school systems, which have ended up with...


In recent months, so many reformers have come down with a case of the shakes, fretting about everything under the sun.

There are those who list the supposed litany of missteps made by our movement’s leaders. Then there are those who offer expansive mea culpas for all of the grievances thrown their way.

But no specific policy topic has caused more reformer repentance than educator evaluations. These new systems, we’re told by our erstwhile comrades-in-arms, have infuriated teachers, corrupted the formative nature of observations, and so much more. In fact, Mike Petrilli just cited these new evaluation systems as the easiest-to-criticize element in reform’s agenda.

Hopefully, the new, very encouraging study of Washington, D.C.’s IMPACT will coax some of my panicky friends out from under their covers.

I’ve long been a huge fan of IMPACT. It’s an educator-evaluation system that dramatically improves observations, makes use of student performance, rewards excellence, and has meaningful consequences for persistence low performance.

And it turns out—sorry Chicken Littles!— it’s working.

The study by Dee and Wyckoff found several positive effects. Maybe most importantly, it’s bringing about greater effectiveness across the board. It’s helping struggling teachers improve, and, remarkably, even causing those at the top to get better and better. In the words of one of the coauthors, “We find strong evidence that this system causes meaningful increases in teacher performance.”

It’s also helping to encourage the lowest-performing teachers to voluntarily leave the...


Lottery systems are too common in education. And while it’s the fairest way to allocate a limited number of seats at, say, an oversubscribed, high-performing charter school, it’s not the way forward when it comes to Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

Unfortunately, that’s the direction some California school districts may be heading.

Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times reported last week that as some schools move to open access for AP courses, it allows students unprepared for the college-level rigor to sign up. And by enrolling students via lottery—because there aren’t enough AP seats to go around—schools may be shutting out high-achieving students entirely.

"While expanding access is generally a good thing, we need to make sure we're not watering down the experience for the high achievers," said Michael Petrilli in the story.

Mike reiterated that sentiment yesterday when he spoke to Larry Mantle of KPCC’s AirTalk, noting the unintended consequences of expanding AP courses.

Everyone agrees that more access to advanced-level work is a good thing for our students, but the evidence is mixed on whether students who don’t (or can’t) pass the AP exam actually benefit from taking these courses.

There’s also a question of peers. Will teachers spend too much class time working with students who are struggling? It seems likely. AP courses should have standards of entry so that our...


Over at Education Week’s Bridging Differences blog, our own Mike Petrilli and educator Deborah Meier have been engaged in a spirited back and forth about the role that poverty plays in education. Allow me to chime in, first by suggesting that while poverty matters, we are nowhere close to maximizing our educational potential, even given the current level of poverty.

I'm concerned that many of the same people who seem to be implying that few further gains can be made in educational outcomes without first solving the poverty problem also seem to have near-total faith in the power of the right government program to address any societal problem that comes our way. Education reformers and advocates for the poor ought not to allow for the creation of this sort of vacuum whereby the poverty conversation is dominated by those who believe the only answers to poverty lie in more safety-net programs that may indeed worsen the cycle of poverty and government dependency. Instead, those who believe that education is the primary path to economic opportunity must also fight to ensure that real opportunities exist.

It’s no secret that our current economic recovery is languishing, with cratering workforce-participation rates and the unemployment rate for blacks north of 13 percent. These effects are especially pronounced in poor communities, and when children in those areas are surrounded by near-despair and hopelessness, it’s no surprise that some don't see education as a path to a brighter future. If...


Dear Deborah,

A healthy debate we've started indeed! I'm not sure we've bridged many differences, though; maybe we should change the blog's name to Bigging Differences.

In that spirit, let me float another provocative but commonsensical idea: We need to do everything we can—in our schools and in our larger social policies—to empower individuals who are working hard to climb the ladder to success. In other words, we need to spur on the strivers.

Let me explain some of my assumptions.

  1. As we've been discussing, I still believe in the promise of upward mobility. I don't buy into the dystopia of some on the left that pictures a future with an eviscerated middle class, opportunities only for the elite, and a vast dependent population. Times are tough now, but economic growth and jobs will return; the American Dream will be back.
  2. But I'm no utopian. Not all children born into poverty are going to make it out by adulthood. Most face powerful disadvantages—dysfunctional families, substance abuse, crime, segregation, broken economies, bad schools, etc.—and not everyone will be able to overcome them. Surely, though, we can do better than our current track record, which is to lift roughly half of all poor children into the working or middle class by the age of 25.
  3. Climbing the ladder of opportunity takes effort—by individuals and by their families. And it often
  4. ...

As waves of reforms and would-be reforms have washed over American public education these past three decades, high schools have mostly stayed dry. Although test scores have risen slightly in the early grades, especially in math, National Assessment results for twelfth-graders have been flat or down a bit. SAT scores are also flat, and ACT averages much the same.

ACT, the organization that administers the college-entrance test of the same name, judges only one-quarter of its test-takers to be fully ready for college-level academics, and the College Board is not much cheerier. In releasing SAT results for the 1.6 million members of the high school class of 2013 who took the test, the board estimated that just 43 percent met its benchmark for college and career readiness—a score of 1550 or better (out of 2400), which translates to a 65 percent chance of having a B-minus (or better) GPA during the freshman year in college.

And that’s among those who stick it out and graduate from high school. Millions of young people drop out. School discipline remains appalling, with gangs, metal detectors, and violence the norm in many places.

The basic institutional structures for high school that former Harvard president James B. Conant described and recommended in an influential 1959 book remain pretty much unchanged a half-century later. The rest of the world has not been idle, however....


Over the past several weeks, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli has been debating Deborah Meier on her Bridging Differences blog about the relationship between poverty and education. One topic that’s come up is the impact of family breakdown. This guest post by Center of the American Experiment president Mitch Pearlstein explores what might be done about it.

Presuming one thinks it’s generally not great for children to live with only one parent, and that it’s not great for the commonweal either, what might you be tempted to say to a young woman or man who was blasé, perhaps even eager, to bring a child into the world in which it was understood, from Day One, that one of his or her parents was essentially out of the family portrait and would remain that way? This is what I might say with as much empathy and grace as I could:

I assure you I know that life can be terribly unpredictable and difficult. In fact, it usually is. This is especially case when it comes to the most personal and treasured things going on in our lives, starting with our children and other people we love. It also can be especially the case when it comes to people we may not love very much anymore at all, if we ever really did. And I very much assure you as well that I’m far from the best or right person in the world to talk to you about these matters, as...


As former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan knows a thing or two about education policy and the reforms that come with it. But in writing this book, she had a different goal in mind: to describe how she came to be a choice advocate and to provide a guide to other parents. With all the urgency of a politician but the patience of a mother—and she is most definitely both, as well as a smart, savvy, and likable human being—Keegan reviews her childhood, her career, and her experience raising four children in a piecemeal family of divorcees and step-moms. Drawing on these experiences, she reveals three “guideposts”: (1) Parents are and should be treated as sacred because children see themselves as reflections of their parents; (2) cultivate and cherish your children’s unique traits; and (3) see and help your children see their lives in a sacred context. Weaving in her background as a linguist and speech pathologist, Keegan illustrates how parents can provide their kids with what they know will help them succeed—and that’s communication. By age 3, the average child should know roughly 1,000 words. The problem is that three-year-olds living with uneducated parents know only 750 words—and those living on welfare know fewer than 500. For Keegan, properly communicating with your children is as essential as telling them they are loved. Her next book, she promises,...


In this study, researchers from Teachers College at Columbia University analyzed data from a cohort of 77,501 New York City public school students who entered ninth grade in 2005, seeking connections between students’ high school outcomes and college persistence and their achievement, background characteristics, and school environments. Two findings stand out among many: First, students who failed New York’s third-grade reading exam had significantly lower odds of graduating high school than their peers who passed. Of those who failed third-grade reading, barely one in three graduated high school, compared to a 90 percent graduation rate among those who passed. Second, for the students who did graduate from high school, the type of diploma earned was the strongest predictor of college enrollment and persistence one year after matriculation. (New York State awards three diplomas—local, Regents, and Advanced Regents—each with different requirements.) Less than one-third of the graduates who earned a local diploma enrolled in college in Fall 2009 and were still enrolled in Spring 2010. This rate is well below those who earned either a Regents (50 percent enrolled and persisted) or an Advanced Regents diploma (80 percent). Given the findings, the researchers suggest that the “conventional assumptions” about school “need to be re-examined.” Perhaps buttressed by their third-grade reading finding, one area the authors urge states and schools to re-think is the grouping of students into grade levels based primarily on age rather than ability. And indeed, some states have gone beyond re-examining—and are in fact dismantling the “social...


Like many, I first became aware of Sal Khan and his Khan Academy when I watched his 2011 TED Talk and was blown away. I immediately jumped onto the site to begin trying practice problems and watching videos in mathematics, the financial crisis, and history. What wowed me most about the site, however, were not Sal's video lessons. Many of those are good and quite informative and instructionally sound as far as they go, but they are also sometimes kind of rudimentary and not always super engaging.

What I loved more was how the site tracked and encouraged student growth and then allowed teachers to monitor that progress. The potential seemed huge for use in traditional or flipped classrooms, yet Khan Academy was offering it all for free.

Since 2011, Khan Academy has grown by leaps and bounds—and seems to have gotten better, too. It's expanded its badging features (more on badges here) to reward students not only for mastering specific knowledge or progressing through lessons but also for being persistent or helpful to others through the site's rich coaching tools. The site also recently added a version in Spanish. Khan’s lessons are now part of multiple pilot programs in real-life classrooms. The academy has built an outstanding computer-programming site—and even has videos with Lebron James asking math and science questions. You may have seen recent TV ads promoting its partnership with Bank of America on financial literacy.

Perhaps the most impactful new feature, however, is the site's reorganization—just in...