Flypaper

Once upon a time, there was a small village on the edge of a river. The people there were good, and life in the village was good. One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The next day this same villager noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. And the following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more, and then still more! The villagers organized themselves quickly, setting up watchtowers and training teams of swimmers who could resist the swift waters and rescue babies. Rescue squads were soon working twenty-four hours a day. And each day the number of helpless babies floating down the river increased. The villagers organized themselves efficiently. The rescue squads were now snatching many children each day. Though not all the babies, now very numerous, could be saved, the villagers felt they were doing well to save as many as they could each day. Indeed, the village priest blessed them in their good work. And life in the village continued on...

It’s become fashionable in ed-policy circles to decry “misNAEPery,” coined by Mathematica’s Steven Glazerman and defined as the inappropriate use of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s an important caution to us pundits and journalists not to make definitive declarations about what might be causing national or state test scores to rise or fall when we really have no idea of the true cause or causes.

But like all good things, the crusade against misNAEPery can be taken to extremes. It’s hard to use NAEP results to establish causation (more on that below), but NAEP scores and trends have great value and reveal much that’s important to know, and therefore the influence they wield is generally justified. In short, just because NAEP scores can be misused doesn’t mean they are useless.

As we look ahead to April’s release of the 2017 NAEP reading and math results for states and the nation, here are five reasons why policymakers, analysists, and educators should pay close attention:

  1. Tests like NAEP measure skills that are important in their own right. To quote President George W. Bush, “Is our children learning?” is still an essential question for our
  2. ...

A recent investigation revealed that several high schools in Washington, D.C., skirted district rules to graduate large numbers of their students who didn’t meet the standards for earning diplomas. As Erica Green of the New York Times and others have argued, this type of malfeasance isn’t limited to the nation’s capital. It happened in neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, and there are reasons to believe it’s happening in plenty of other places.

It’s not hard to understand why. For a decade now, federal policy has required states to measure graduation rates uniformly, to set ambitious goals for raising those rates, and to hold high schools accountable for meeting such goals. But the same local administrators who have been charged with getting more students across the graduation stage also have considerable leeway—via course grades, credit recovery programs, and shadier practices—in determining whether students have earned the privilege.

Given how many children enter American high schools far below grade level, and noting how many states have been dropping external checks such as exit and end-of-course exams, the temptation for educators to ignore graduation norms is pervasive.

That’s no reason to excuse cheating, but it does point to a large...

We know that it’s hard to fire poorly performing teachers, especially after they earn tenure, so the more that districts can do to predict effectiveness ahead of time, the better.

This study by CALDER researchers Paul Bruno and Katharine Strunk examines whether a new teacher hiring and screening process in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second biggest district in the country, is actually ushering in more effective teachers.

Instituted in 2014–15, the Multiple Measures Teacher Selection Process is a standardized system of hiring with eight components whereby eligible candidates (those completing the application packet and meeting certification requirements) are scored on multiple rubrics. The eight components are a structured interview; professional references; sample lesson; writing sample; undergraduate grade point average; subject matter licensure scores; background (such as prior teaching or leadership experience); and preparation (such as attendance at a highly ranked college, evidence of prior teaching effectiveness or major in a credential subject field). The study uses a wealth of applicant data from 2014–15 through 2016–17, as well as teacher- and student-level administrative data for teachers who are ultimately hired and for their students.

Bruno and Strunk observe those individuals who pass the selection process, which typically...

If a renewed focus on curriculum as a driver of improvements in K–12 education is in the cards, then a recent study from University of Oregon and Georgia Southern University scientists is good news indeed. It shows that four well-designed online science modules increased student achievement across all student subgroups, and especially for English as a second language (ESL) students and students with disabilities.

The study, a randomized controlled trial with over 2,300 middle school students and their teachers in thirteen schools in Oregon and Georgia, was conducted over three school years between 2014 and 2017. Each year, students in the treatment group completed one module—described as “enhanced online textbooks.” The modules covered life science, Earth and space science, and physical science; were aligned with Next Generation Science Standards; and included teacher professional development regarding their effective use prior to the start of each school year. Pacing was left up to the teachers, although the minimum duration reported was ten weeks. Control group teachers taught these topics “as usual”—i.e., in class without online content. Students in both groups completed pre-tests and post-tests around the specific content of each module.

The researchers found that students in both groups...

For over twenty-five years, center-left and center-right policymakers and advocates in Washington, D.C., and in many states and communities, have worked together to create and grow charter schools that are improving the life outcomes of students, especially those from low-income and minority families.

That remarkable bipartisan alliance—a rarity in Washington today—was threatened in 2017 by wide-ranging criticisms rightly aimed at the new administration on a variety of K–12 reform issues by many thoughtful, progressive, center-left reformers.

The good news is that this fragile coalition seems once again to be on firm ground, though the partnership remains precarious.

The criticisms began with the nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, focusing largely on how her home state of Michigan epitomized charter schools gone awry. Pundits and reporters jumped to conclusions, as in the New York Times story “Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools: Its Children Lost.” No doubt some criticisms by those on the center-left were well placed, especially regarding how charter schools are authorized in Michigan, and—not surprisingly—were shared by some on the center-right.

Another criticism—again, not without merit—had to do with the Trump administration’s proposal to cut $9.2 billion, or 13.5 percent, for K–12 education from the...

Robert Slavin

I happen to own the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, pictured here. It’s lovely in itself, has beautiful views of downtown and the outer harbor, and rakes in more than $11 million in tolls each year. But I’m willing to sell it to you, cheap!

If you believe that I own a bridge in Baltimore, then let me try out an even more fantastic idea on you. Since 1992, the achievement of America’s twelfth graders on NAEP reading and math tests has been unchanged. Yet high school graduation rates have been soaring. From 2006 to 2016, U.S. graduation rates have increased from 73 percent to 84 percent, an all-time record. Does this sound plausible to you?

Recently, the Washington Post reported a scandal about graduation rates at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., a high-poverty school not known (in the past) for its graduation rates. In 2017, 86 percent of Ballou seniors graduated, and 100 percent were accepted into college. An investigation by radio station WAMU, however, found that a large proportion of the graduating seniors had very poor attendance, poor achievement, and other problems. In fact, the Post reported that one third of all graduating...

For the past year and a half, I’ve been honored to represent the State Board of Education on the Maryland Commission on Innovation & Excellence in Education, which released its preliminary report this week. Much heavy lifting lies ahead as Commission members work with staff and consultants to put flesh on the bones of our broad policy recommendations and to cost them out.

The Commission has been brilliantly led by former University of Maryland chancellor William (Brit) Kirwan, ably staffed by the state’s Department of Legislative Services, and informed and inspired by its consultants at the National Center on Education and the Economy. But it’s also been constrained in the ways that any gathering of “stakeholders” is, i.e., by the turf-protecting and interest-advancing of groups with huge stakes in the current system. Hence it has oscillated between truly bold ideas for how K–12 education in Maryland should change and defensive angst over the real-world implications of those changes for districts, school boards, administrators, teachers, taxpayers, and more.

Chairman Kirwan has grappled with this dilemma with finesse, humor, humility, and diplomacy, but there’s no avoiding the fact that our preliminary report contains both important accomplishments and worrisome weaknesses. And there’s...

Non-cognitive skills are an increasingly popular topic in education. These include capabilities like perseverance, grit, self-efficacy, work ethic, and conscientiousness. Research shows that possessing them can affect both scholastic and life outcomes.

Their popularity and apparent effectiveness have led to calls on schools to pay more attention to these non-cognitive factors. These calls were answered in part by ESSA, which requires states to have an indicator of “school quality or student success” that goes beyond state standardized test scores and graduation rates. Sometimes referred to as the “nonacademic indicator,” the inclusion of this measure in federal requirements opened the door for schools to focus, at least in part, on non-cognitive skills. California’s CORE districts, for example, use a social-emotional learning metric that measures four non-cognitive competencies with student surveys.

But incorporating non-cognitive skills into schools is still quite difficult. Paul Tough, author of the widely-cited How Children Succeed, explained why in a 2016 Atlantic article:     

But here’s the problem: For all our talk about noncognitive skills, nobody has yet found a reliable way to teach kids to be grittier or more resilient. And it has become clear, at the same time, that the educators...

Recent stories have cast doubt on the stratospheric graduation rates reported in myriad states, including accounts in Alabama, California, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas—and of course Washington, D.C., where one-third of recently awarded diplomas are reportedly attributable to educators violating district policies related to pupil absences and credit recovery.

These are just the scandals we know about. “This is sad and infuriating and, as local education reporters across the country know, not at all uncommon,” tweeted Erica L. Green, an education reporter at the New York Times, when the D.C. scandal broke. Green used to cover education for the Baltimore Sun. And what we need today is for more folks on more school beats to investigate whether similar malfeasance is occurring in their districts and states—because such behavior is almost certainly more widespread than has yet seen the light of day.

If it is, we must identify causes and propose solutions. The issue is not measurement and accountability writ large, as our friends Lindsey Burke and Max Eden proposed recently. People cheat on Wall Street too, but that doesn’t mean companies should stop reporting quarterly earnings...

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