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.

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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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
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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...

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