With reading and math scores that top the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a majority of the workforce holding college degrees, and international test scores that compete with leading countries, it is clear that Massachusetts produces some of the best education outcomes in the country.

Its ascent to the top began in the 1990s with a series of reforms that transformed its K–12 education system. To explore how state leaders were able to pull this off (as well as what challenges remain), the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted a discussion featuring David Driscoll, former Massachusetts commissioner of education and the author of the new book Commitment and Common Sense; Bill Bushaw, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board; Jim Peyser, current secretary of education for Massachusetts and a veteran of the events recounted in Driscoll’s book; David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy; and Mieka Wick, CEO of CityBridge Education (also an alumna of the Driscoll education department.) The discussion yielded ample food-for-consideration by other states as they dive into implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Fordham President Emeritus Checker Finn moderated. A few emerging lessons follow:

Lesson one: Grow a thick skin...

In 1970, the celebrated economist Albert O. Hirschman published Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. A few years ago, the Hoover Institution’s Williamson Evers explained its argument on the Education Next blog:

Hirschman discusses how individuals react when services they rely on deteriorate. The basic responses available to us are “exit” and “voice,” Hirschman points out, where exit means turning to a different provider or leaving the area, and voice means political participation.

We tend to think of these responses as stark alternatives. Hirschman, as a social scientist, wanted us to consider the interplay between them. Exit usually has lower costs than voice for the individual. With exit, you can avoid the long slog of politics and simply turn to someone else or move somewhere else.

But there is a limiting case: Exit can have high costs when individuals are loyal to institutions—thus the third component in Hirschman’s trio of exit, voice, and loyalty.

I’ve been thinking about exit, voice, and loyalty lately, and how they pertain to parents of school-age children, myself included.

Those of us in education reform have generally viewed parents as either choosers or helpers—in terms of exit or loyalty. Under the former rubric:...

Ever since the federal government mandated annual standardized testing two decades ago, test preparation, i.e., instructional time spent preparing students for tests, has been hotly debated. Critics argue that it negatively affects teaching and learning by focusing instruction on rote and procedure over more complex content, while proponents contend that test prep can improve instruction if the tests themselves, and the academic standards that they assess, are rigorous and high-quality.

Oddly, there’s little research to substantiate the claims of either side. So let us welcome a recent study on these issues by David Blazar of the University of Maryland and Cynthia Pollard of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Using data previously collected by the National Center for Teacher Effectiveness (NCTE), Blazar and Pollard analyzed two separate measures of test preparation to answer two questions. First, does test prep lead to lower-quality instruction? And, second, does it make any difference if teachers are teaching to a more cognitively demanding test? 

The researchers used teacher surveys as well as transcripts from videotaped math lessons to determine how frequently teachers engage in test prep, and what types. The survey yielded self-reported data on how often teachers engaged in five common forms of test...

Alicia Cotabish

Science is just cool. Plain and simple. You can find science at play in all our surroundings. Whether one recognizes it or not, science can explain everyday encounters like music being heard from an instrument to more obvious interactions like combustion of materials. Because of these natural occurrences, classroom teachers have the opportunity to demonstrate science in action through everyday examples. Historically, science was taught in isolation using traditional pedagogical practices. Over the last twenty-five years, teachers of science have embraced hands-on types of science activities, and integrated forms of technology (e.g., graphing calculator, probes, and the like) to increase engagement and bring relevant experiences to the science classroom. More recently, the Next Generation Science Standards have influenced how we approach the teaching of science; however, students have redefined the definition of engagement.

Today’s generation of students are living in a world of immersive technology. They prefer to receive news and information through Facebook or Instagram, and are highly engaged in self-directed learning using YouTube. Their utilization of these platforms requires teachers to reexamine their own interpretation of student engagement and hands-on learning. These types of self-directed, interest-based student activities are surely a call-to-action for all educators to seek out...

The gap in vocabulary for children growing up in poor households compared to their higher-income peers is well documented in research, especially for the youngest students just entering school. But shouldn’t the start of formal education begin to mitigate that gap? Research has shown that, unfortunately, initial gaps tend to persist, leading to a steep uphill climb by the time students are “reading to learn” in fourth grade and up. A group of researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas and San Diego State University recently studied whether the pernicious effects of socioeconomic status (SES) might negatively affect not only base vocabulary size but also the typical processes of word learning, which would serve to increase a child’s vocabulary going forward.

They recruited a group of 68 students ages 8 to 15 to take part in an experiment that required participants to use the surrounding text to identify the meaning of an unknown word. Each exercise included three sentences, all with a made-up word at the end. For example: “Pour some water in my raub.” This was the last of a three-sentence triplet designed to lead a reader to that “raub” means “cup.” All of the words...

In a recent blog post, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham posits three possible types of personalization in personalized learning—children learning at their own speed, pedagogical tailoring, and individualized content. I have sought out all of these variations for my children over the years and, as Willingham notes, they are not mutually exclusive. But neither are they equally important. Let me make the case, as a father of two high school girls, that personalized pacing is a must-have, personalized pedagogy is a nice-to-have, and personalized content is largely to be avoided, at least until the end of the K-12 experience.

Personalized pacing and pedagogy

My children’s experience at The Metro School, a 6-12 STEM-focused early college school in Columbus, shows that students learning at their own speed is the prime mover of successful personalized learning (PL).

Metro’s model generally compresses what would be year-long courses in traditional schools into one semester. Course material is divided into discrete units and subunits, with each having clear goals for students and teachers and clearly connecting to the next. It moves fast, the expectations are high[1], and there is little downtime. Students’ progress is assessed regularly along the way,...

Former California state superintendent Bill Honig recently wrote a blog post criticizing the recent Fordham study that we coauthored, Rating the Ratings: An Analysis of the 51 ESSA Accountability Plans. Although we respect his opinion, we take issue with two of his arguments.

First and foremost, Honig accuses us of incorrectly assessing California’s approach to measuring student achievement, and claims that our alleged mistake was the result of “sloppy staff work.”

We are happy to admit when we’ve erred, as with our inaccurate analysis of New Hampshire’s plan, but in this case we beg to differ.

An important part of our process was corresponding with each state’s education department to ensure that our ratings were correct. We did this in every instance, including California. That’s for a sound reason: State ESSA plans are often opaque and confusing, and we wanted to be careful not to mischaracterize them. Yet when we shared our draft review with the California Department of Education, all we got back was an angry note about our “superficial and inadequate process.” We requested, yet again, confirmation that we were accurately describing California’s accountability system, but we received no further response.

In particular, Honig...

One of the things that makes the topic of discipline disparities so difficult is that it’s hard to untangle students’ behavior from adults’ responses. As Matt Barnum put it in a recent Chalkbeat article, “black and poor students have substantially higher suspension rates than white and more affluent peers. Figuring out why is tricky. Is it because certain groups of students behave differently, or because teachers and administrators respond differently to the same behavior?”

That’s the essential question, because different answers will lead policymakers and civil rights investigators to pursue radically different strategies. So which is it?

Before we get to that, let’s try a thought experiment regarding the achievement gap, one I also ran past Barnum. African-American twelfth-graders are 2.6 times likelier to score below the proficient level on the NAEP reading exam than are white students. Yet no one but an extremist would chalk up the entirety of that achievement gap to racially biased teachers. To be sure, bias plays a role, as studies are finding that teachers tend to have lower expectations for children of color. Systemic inequality is certainly a factor as well, given that children of color are more likely to...

A recent study from the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University uses thirteen years of student-level data from Louisiana to examine differences in suspension rates for black and white students, as well as poor and non-poor students. Overall, it finds that black students are about twice as likely as white students to be suspended and low-income students are about 1.75 times as likely to be suspended as non-low-income students. However, as with previous studies of this topic, it is difficult to know whether (or to what extent) these gaps reflect educator bias, as opposed to differences in behavior or school culture.

According to the authors, suspensions for black students in Louisiana last an average of 0.40 days longer than suspensions for white students who commit the same type of infraction. This difference could be interpreted as evidence of bias (or at least systemic inequity). However, when comparisons are restricted to students in the same school, grade, and year, the difference between black and white students is just 0.10 days. So, at the very least, the first estimate overstates the bias exhibited by individual educators.

Further complicating matters, since suspensions for low-income students are 0.18 days longer than suspensions for their...

A new recent study conducted by David Blazer of the University of Maryland examines whether teachers affect student outcomes other than test scores, including students’ self-reported behavior and happiness in class and self-efficacy in math. The study collects data from fourth and fifth grade teachers in four anonymous school districts in three states on the East Coast across three school years (2010–11 to 2012–13).

The analysis focuses on a subset of forty-one teachers who were part of a random assignment study in year three and a group of students (and their teachers) who completed a survey about their attitudes and behaviors during all three years. Analysts had access to student demographic and achievement data, teacher value-added data, and student survey data on three constructs, behavior in class (e.g., “My behavior in this class sometimes annoys the teacher”), self-efficacy in math (e.g., “In this class, math is too hard”), and happiness in class (e.g., “I enjoy math class this year”). Regarding the causal nature of the study, in the spring of 2012, fourth and fifth grade teachers were randomly assigned to class rosters of the same grade level; participants were generalists who taught all subject areas such that their contribution to...