Marc Sternberg

Thirty-five years ago this month, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform—a transformative report that has helped reshape education policy over the past four decades.

At the Walton Family Foundation, where I lead the K–12 Education Program, we think of Nation at Risk as the moment in which our strategy—founded in the two enduring ideas of choice and accountability—was conceived. And so we take the occasion of its thirty-fifth anniversary as a moment to pause and reflect—both on how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

Today, hundreds of thousands of children living in low-income communities are in new kinds of schools—private schools, public charter schools, traditional district schools—that are succeeding in a manner that is widespread and pervasive, proving beyond any doubt that quality schools at scale are possible for every child in every neighborhood.

When we think about the ‘new basics’ that were highlighted in A Nation at Risk, we should look to these schools—full of classrooms where students are developing skills for continuous learning and educators that are innovating and fostering creativity.

These are the types of schools that the National Commission on Excellence...


If you were on vacation earlier this month—lucky you—you may have missed the release of the 2017 NAEP results. On the whole, you didn’t miss much. With NAEP results flat in much of the country, the prevailing narrative is that education progress has stalled. There were some exceptions around the country, like Florida, that continued to make impressive gains. Unfortunately, Ohio wasn’t one of those exceptions, as my colleague Aaron Churchill has explained.

Don’t take my word for it though, here are some data comparing Ohio and Florida’s NAEP performance.[1]

In summary, Florida is now cleaning Ohio’s clock on NAEP. But that wasn’t always the case: Notice how in 2003 Ohio had better NAEP scores in both fourth and eighth grade reading and math for black and low-income students. In 2017, Florida was superior in EVERY one of those categories. Florida’s most disadvantaged students made tremendous gains while Ohio’s languished. The progress hasn’t been limited to historically...


According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2016–17 was one of the slowest-growth years for charter schools in recent memory. Whereas the Race to the Top era usually saw an annual net gain of 360–380 more charters, by 2016–17 that increase dropped to roughly 120. Nobody knows for sure why this happened, but one hypothesis is saturation: With charters enjoying market share of over 20 percent in some three dozen cities, perhaps school supply is starting to meet parental demand, making new charters less necessary and harder to launch.[i] If so, perhaps it’s time to look for new frontiers.

One option is to launch more charter schools in affluent communities. This would not only provide opportunities for sector growth, but would also broaden the political base for these schools of choice. Fordham senior visiting fellow Derrell Bradford candidly assessed the risk associated with today’s relatively narrow base: “Our [charter sector’s] anchor constituency is black and Hispanic families who don’t vote in the same numbers or contribute the same dollars as, say, the affluent Nassau County moms who typify the opt-out movement.”

We understand the political logic and surely support efforts...

Scott J. Peters

It’s no secret that identified gifted and talented populations are dominated by students from white and Asian American families and that students from African American, Latinx, and Native American families are disproportionately underrepresented. Less well known is the degree of this proportionality at individual schools or school districts. Disproportional representation in any educational service or program cannot be addressed through policy and practice if individual schools don’t know the scope of the problem or how long it’s been going on. Luckily, the data are now available to answer such questions.

Since the 2009–10 school year, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education has conducted a biannual survey of every school in the country on a range of civil rights issues. (These data were part of a large Fordham report entitled Is there a Gifted Gap? earlier this year.) Although this data collection has been going on since the late 1960s, what made 2009 a breakthrough year was that all schools were surveyed instead of just a sample. This universal data collection has continued ever since. What this means for practitioners is that information on gifted education service populations is now available for...

Michael W. Kirst

California’s NAEP scores in eighth grade reading grew faster than any other state during what Fordham President Mike Petrilli claims was a “lost decade” in education: an eleven-point average scale score gain from 2007 to 2017. (See table 1.) In fourth grade reading, the state grew seven points, tying for second place in ten-year gains. Indeed, California is one of only five states—along with Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, and Nevada—that saw improvements in three out of four age/subject groupings over this period.

Table 1. NAEP statistically significant average scale score changes, 2007–17, California and nation*


Reading, all students

Math, all students


Grade 4

Grade 8

Grade 4

Grade 8











* Blank cell indicates no significant change.

In California, where I am the President of the State Board of Education,...


2016–17 was one of the slowest-growth years for charter schools in recent memory. Nobody knows exactly why, but one hypothesis is saturation: With charters having achieved market share of over 20 percent in more than three dozen cities, perhaps school supply is starting to meet parental demand, making new charters less necessary and harder to launch. If so, perhaps it’s time to look for new frontiers, especially if we want more children to enjoy the benefits of high-quality charters.

One option is to open more charter schools in affluent communities, which we surely support. But we couldn’t help but wonder: Are we overlooking neighborhoods in America that are already home to plenty of poor kids, and contain the population density necessary to make school choice work, but lack charter school options? Especially communities in the inner-ring suburbs of flourishing cities, which increasingly are becoming magnets for poor and working-class families priced out of gentrifying areas?

That’s the question that Fordham's new report, Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options, and its accompanying website address. The study, led by Miami University (of Ohio) Assistant Professor Andrew Saultz, analyzes the distribution of charter elementary schools across the...


An enduring finding since the main NAEP assessment’s inception almost three decades ago is the relative performance of different racial and ethnic groups—i.e., achievement gaps. See, for example, figure 1.

Figure 1. NAEP average scale scores, eighth grade math, 1990–2017*

*Note that the line for Asian student scores is broken at 1996 because the applicable data didn’t meet reporting standards in that year.

There are myriad reasons for these score differences, and many concern commonly cited correlates of achievement that NAEP tracks, such as family income, parent education level, and the primary language that a child is exposed to at birth. (There are also the significant and harmful effects of racism, which are further discussed below and are evinced by these enduring gaps and adversely affect all of this but cannot be directly measured by NAEP surveys.) Students who come from more affluent families, for example, or who have highly educated parents, or whose first language is English tend to do better in school and on tests than their less advantaged peers.

Yet together these commonly measured correlates fail to tell the...


The highly wonky debate around whether “super subgroups,”—which combine smaller subgroups, like multiple racial minorities—actually meet the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act isn’t that exhilarating. But a recent study from George Washington University’s Matthew Shirrell suggests that these are far from humdrum decisions. How student subgroups are defined can impact key teacher outcomes.

The study examines the effects of NCLB-style subgroup accountability on teacher turnover and attrition. Recall that the No Child Left Behind Act required that schools make yearly improvement, not only in overall student achievement, but in the achievement of various subgroups. The study explores whether holding elementary school educators accountable for the performance of white and black students affected the likelihood that these teachers would leave their schools or leave teaching altogether.

Shirrell examines the initial year that subgroup accountability was implemented in North Carolina, using data from 1999–2000 (before NCLB was implemented in 2002–03) through 2003–04, and tracking teacher outcomes one and two years afterwards. He uses demographic data on every public school elementary teacher in the state, though he limits the study to black and white teachers because they comprise the vast majority of elementary school teachers (14 percent and 84...


The assignments students complete in a classroom guide their learning and reflect teacher and school expectations. A new report from The Education Trust analyzes the quality of over 1,800 classroom math assignments, finding relatively strong alignment to standards but little focus on cognitive demand and rigor. Worse, the report finds significant differences in assignment quality between high- and low-poverty schools and honors and non-honors courses.

Researchers applied a framework of five elements to math assignments from twelve middle schools in six districts across three states: alignment to the Common Core, cognitive challenge, rigor, mathematical understanding, and the potential for motivation and engagement. They measured assignments using multiple “analysis indicators” for each of the five elements. Sixty-three teachers responsible for ninety-one math courses submitted all of their classroom assignments (tasks that students completed independently or with peers) over a two-week period. Half of the schools had free and reduced price lunch rates of above 65 percent and were classified as high poverty.

To determine whether an assignment was cognitively challenging, the researchers used Webb’s four "depth of knowledge levels.” They found that just 9 percent of assignments demanded strategic or extended thinking (levels three and four) rather than basic...


Opting out of testing is like opting out of our personal and collective responsibility as parents. As a mother, I want to know how my own kids are doing but, arguably more importantly, we all need to know how all kids are doing. We would not even be aware of the seismic gaps between white students and students of color if not for the data that kids like mine provide. Opting out makes it too convenient for all of us to deny hard truths, and to do that would be to betray millions of students and families.

I recently read a piece in Education Week by Starr Sackstein in which she explains why she opts her son out of state testing and why she, as a mother and a teacher, believes that all other parents should do the same (and would do the same if we only knew our rights.) She writes:

I was never allowed to tell my students to opt-out, even though I knew it was in their best interest. Too many parents in the city are unaware of their rights and so they force their kids to take the exams despite it working against...