A back-to-school buffet

Getty Images/Rawpixel

I’ve been away on vacation, and you probably have, too. Here’s my attempt to catch up on several issues of educational importance. Dig in!

Senator John McCain’s passing. I’ve been heartened by the outpouring of appreciation for this great American hero, one of a dwindling tribe of Reaganesque City-on-a-Hill Republicans. A lot of ink has and will be spilled about our schools’ role in the political crisis we find ourselves in—the partisan rage, the acrimony, the “narrowcasting” and “fake news,” the flirtations with authoritarianism on the right and socialism on the left. Everyone seems to agree that civics education is broken, but even defining that challenge is ideologically fraught. Here’s a modest proposal: Can we get serious about teaching little kids about American heroes again? The complexity and cynicism can come later. But when boys and girls are five or six or seven, let’s introduce them to inspirational role models, people whose lives embodied service, gratitude, and excellence. This list of fifty heroes is good start; John McCain should make it fifty-one.

Improving academic standards: Doable but hard. While I was away, my Fordham colleagues released The State of State Standards Post-Common Core. Our major finding was that most of the dozen or so states that either made major changes to the Common Core (“un-adopting” them) or avoided them altogether ending up botching the job. Missouri’s, for example, don’t include an expectation that Kindergarteners be able to print or write. Virginia’s lack any examples of specific works of outstanding literature or culturally important informational texts that students should read. And Pennsylvania’s math benchmarks fail to specific each grade level’s main foci and learning goals. The lesson isn’t that the Common Core standards are perfect—they aren’t, and weren’t brought down from Mount Sinai by David Coleman and Jason Zimba. But they are well-crafted, represent a good faith effort to distill what we know from research about effective math, writing, and literacy instruction, and remain, in our reviewers’ eyes, best in class. They can be improved upon, though. California reorganized its high school math standards to be more concise and user-friendly, for instance. Massachusetts added numerous examples in both subjects, making its standards easier to implement. And Texas wrote very good math standards without ever marrying the Common Core. Still, as state leaders prepare to update their math and ELA standards (and all will need to do so eventually, as we learn more from research and experience on the ground), they should proceed with caution. Start with the Common Core—or maybe Texas’s standards in math—and tweak from there. Remember, too, that while teacher and parent input is important, the best standards aren’t written by vast committees of “stakeholders.”

About those poll results. Back-to-school season means it’s time for the annual Education Next and PDK opinion polls, and both came chock-full of interesting findings this year. Support for teacher raises led the news coverage, and unsurprisingly so, given the wave of walkouts this past spring. And advocates of every stripe found something to celebrate. Americans love public schools! Americans love private school choice! Americans don’t really hate testing! That’s all well and good, but I’m feeling a bit dubious about the value of public opinion polls right now, given how malleable public sentiment turns out to be. I’m referring, of course, to the complete reversal among Republicans on bed-rock principles like free trade and our relationship with Russia. This might be the Trump Effect, but it indicates that opinions are not as strongly held as we might suspect.

Wouldn’t the same be true—probably truer—about the arcana of education policy? We can see hints within the polls themselves. When told how much teachers actually make—way more than most people think—support for raises drops. When using the v-word, support for school choice drops. Same with “Common Core” and the notion of uniform standards. The cynical view is that most public opinions are now more closely tied to tribal identities than firmly held positions; progressives oppose “vouchers” because they are supposed to; same with conservatives and the Common Core. My optimistic take on this is that opinions are not firmly held, so leadership matters. If and when we are blessed with a leader—a president probably, or maybe an education secretary—who can find common cause with folks on the left, right, and center and paint a picture of a better education system, and how to build it, I suspect most Americans will be happy to follow. That’s not likely to happen at the national level any time soon, but after November we can hope that some governors get back to serious education work and take up the baton of leadership.

Ability grouping in elementary schools. EdWeek’s Sarah Sparks turned in a characteristically strong article about the research on reading groups, but her editors spoiled it with a bad headline (“Are Classroom Reading Groups the Best Way to Teach Reading? Maybe Not.”) It’s true, as she points out, that ability-grouping won’t magically erase the achievement gap, and can exacerbate it if teachers don’t hold high expectations for, and demand rapid progress from, kids in the lowest-ability groups. But we learn at the end of the article that the best recent research on small-group instruction—a randomized control study at that—found that “students who participated in the targeted reading groups over three years performed significantly higher than students in a control group that used standard reading classes. Though 45 percent of the students in the targeted reading groups came from a low-income background, by third grade, all of them had higher reading scores than the national average for their grade, and none had scores below the expectations for their grade level.”

So long as kids come into Kindergarten with widely differing levels of readiness, which is nearly inevitable, teachers are going to need to group them by current ability for at least part of the day—because keeping them all together would be hugely inefficient and frustrating for students and teachers alike. Technologists dream of a day when “personalized learning” will mean ability groups of one. Still, even with the extensive use of digital instruction, I suspect that ability groups are here to stay. The question, then, is how to make them as effective as possible for everyone.

***

I hope this buffet gave you some sustenance for the new school year; now go and hit the books.

 
 
Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.