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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...

Over the past thirty years, the school discipline pendulum has swung wildly from one extreme to the other, as policymakers have struggled to solve an inherently difficult problem. Today, the “zero tolerance” policies that were all the rage at the end of the last century are generally viewed as heavy-handed and blunt, removing administrator discretion and treating many different kinds of offenses as equally injurious. Yet as the tide of elite—and education reform—opinion has turned against over-suspension, the instinctive response of policymakers has once again been to tie the hands of teachers, principals, and local officials, this time with the explicit goal of reducing the use of suspensions, especially for traditionally disadvantaged groups.

Overall, we agree that suspensions are unlikely to benefit suspended students. But an important question about school discipline is also whether the push to reduce the number of suspensions is harmful to the rule-abiding majority. According to a 2004 study, 85 percent of teachers and 73 percent of parents felt the “school experience of most students suffers at the expense of a few chronic offenders.” And that was before the push to reduce suspensions. A more recent study by the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden showed...

One important question about school discipline is whether it helps or harms those being disciplined. But a second, equally important question is whether a push to reduce the number of suspensions is harmful to the rule-abiding majority.

Fordham’s newest study, The Academic and Behavioral Consequences of Discipline Policy Reform: Evidence from Philadelphia, examines outcomes in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), which made dramatic changes to its code of conduct during the 2012–13 school year. Specifically, it instituted a new ban on out-of-school suspensions (OSS) for low-level “conduct” offenses—such as profanity or failure to follow classroom rules—and reduced the length of OSS for more serious infractions. To gauge the impacts of these changes, Matthew Steinberg (University of Pennsylvania) and Johanna Lacoe (Mathematica) examined data before and after they were implemented, and penned two scholarly papers: one that focuses on the district-level effects of the change in discipline policy, and a second that explores patterns of attendance and achievement at the school, grade, and individual levels.

Here we combine those papers and synthesize their key findings for a lay audience, which include:

  • Changes in district policy had no long-term impact on the number of low-level “conduct” suspensions, and most schools
  • ...

Last week, an NPR affiliate threw super-cooled water on D.C.’s Ballou High School’s so-called success in graduating 64 percent of its seniors and earning every senior, regardless of whether they graduated, college acceptance. Turns out that, although 164 students were granted diplomas, more than half of those who walked across the graduation stage tallied at least sixty days of unexcused school absences, and one cap-and-gown wearer recorded more than 150.

As shocking as these seat-time revelations are, they merely add to other signs of academic struggle at Ballou. Last year, for example, only 9 percent of the school’s pupils passed the English language arts portion of D.C.’s annual standardized test. None passed the math portion.

Perhaps even worse, considering that all of these young people may now be college-bound, are the school’s woeful SAT scores. Last year, the average total score was 782 out of 1600, which falls into the 11th percentile nationwide, and 8th percentile among SAT users. That score represents the sum of the exam’s two “objective” parts—essentially reading and math—and Ballou’s scores were equally low in both, earning a 382 and 381, respectively. Neither is remotely close to...

The House and Senate have now passed versions of a bill that will overhaul the U.S. tax code for the first time in decades. The GOP will soon iron out differences between the two bills in a conference committee, and then the final legislation will head to President Trump's desk for approval. Regarding education policy, one of the areas that has kicked up the most dust is the expansion of tax-advantaged 529 college savings plans, which will allow families to use the savings for K-12 expenses and not just higher education. Provisions for this expansion are found in both versions of the bills.

Some believe that this expansion ought to be celebrated because it will allow more families to consider more choices when it comes to which school their child can attend. Others, however, worry the change uses scarce political and financial resources to advantage families with enough money to save for private school. Perhaps, they argue, we should instead invest in ways to give poor and working-class families more options.

To explore the issue in more depth, we’ve featured opposing perspectives from a trio of experts. Praising the 529 expansion is Peter Murphy, the Vice President for Policy at...

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