By Charles Sahm

One of the odd features of education policy is that while a plethora of research exists on the effects of systemic reforms (e.g., class size, charter schools, teacher, and school accountability mechanisms), on student achievement there is very little data on whether curriculum—what kids are actually being taught—makes a difference. As the Urban Institute's Matthew Chingos notes: "It's as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients."

Slowly, however, the notion that curriculum counts is beginning to gain traction. At a recent Hopkins/Hunter forum (a collaboration between the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and Hunter College), Harvard professor Thomas Kane discussed a recent five-state study he oversaw that showed high-quality instructional materials produced a larger effect than having an experienced teacher versus a novice teacher. Kane plans to follow up with a national study in 2017. Other researchers, such as the Urban Institute's Chingos and the University of Southern California's Morgan Polikoff, are conducting studies on curricular effectiveness, but states don't make it easy: Most states don't collect information regarding which instructional materials schools are using.


In education reform’s post-election landscape, long-dormant fault lines have slipped, opening huge chasms of belief as former allies run to their respective partisan or issue-based corners.

Accountability, one of the deepest of those fault lines, seems to have become a totemic stop sign among reformers who find their political anchor in the Democratic Party. Many such folks now brandish accountability as their sine qua non, despite possessing neither the political or policy wherewithal to stop, or slow, potential change at the federal level or in two thirds of America’s statehouses.

There is, however, a problem with re-enacting Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog, shouting, “You shall not pass!” Here and on this issue, the ensuing fall may be similar. The fight over accountability isn’t actually in front of us—it’s behind us, and it’s been lost already. More specifically, it was sold out in bipartisan fashion and returned to the states from D.C. in as fractured a fashion as possible.

I've been a fierce supporter of the No Child Left Behind accountability framework, but it wasn’t hard to see the cracks in the bulwark. Most noticeably, the confluence of Republicans (shunning federal overreach), self-interested teachers unions (opposing teacher evaluation), and...

Last month, I explained why 2016 was “The Year We Came Apart”—both the nation, and the education reform movement. Now, rejuvenated by the holiday break, let me suggest that 2017 can be the year we come back together again.

No Pollyanna, I. On virtually every issue, Americans remained sharply divided. We won’t magically find new middle ground in contentious areas like abortion, Obamacare, taxes, climate change, or much else. Within education reform’s big tent, disagreement is also here to stay. We’ll continue vigorously to debate one another on matters big and small—about the appropriate role of standards and testing; the pros and cons of various approaches to accountability; how much deference to show parents versus oversight agencies when it comes to judging school quality; and on and on.

Nor should we ignore the threat that the Trump presidency may pose to our democratic norms and values. If his authoritarian impulses turn into authoritarian actions—rounding up law-abiding immigrants, discriminating against people on the basis of religion—we must stand up to him and push back.

So the sort of “coming together” I envision is not about glossing over real disagreements or rolling over when faced with a bully. It’s about using...

Dual enrollment is on a roll. Enabling high school students to take college courses for college credit while still enrolled in high school is intended by its advocates to help solve multiple problems that plague American education. These include:

  • The boredom of high school students who have completed their requirements for graduation and are coasting as they wait for their diplomas.
  • The desire of advanced students to pursue subjects that interest them in greater depth than their high school course offerings allow.
  • The need for high school pupils to get a sense of what college classes are actually like.
  • The inability of many school systems to afford, on their own, or offer a rich array of advanced courses.
  • The yearning by many high school students to get a head start on college, save some time and money when they get there, and perhaps avoid dull entry-level courses.
  • The push by policymakers to boost academic performance, get more kids into and through college—and save some tax dollars by minimizing course duplication and, perhaps, student remediation.
  • The appetite of colleges themselves to maximize enrollments and revenues, both by teaching some students who haven’t yet matriculated and by recruiting more of those
  • ...

“We should stop sentimentalizing the traditional public school and open ourselves to a different way of doing public education,” writes Ashley Rogers Berner in her invigorating and highly readable new book, Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School. “There is nothing to fear and much to gain from doing so.”

Berner, the Deputy Director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins, where she is also an assistant professor, traces much our educational malaise to a pair of historical “wrong turns”: the nineteenth century decision to impose a uniform structure on American education, and the abandonment of a traditional academic curricula. As a result of these twin sins, the majority of our children attend geographically determined, state-run schools. And the majority of those aren’t very good.

The book’s strength is its systematic dismantling of the most common arguments against pluralism and the “political arrangement” that privileges state-run schools and entrenches mediocrity, particularly for our neediest students. Only state schools can create good citizens? Wrong. “Longstanding research suggests that private schools, particularly Catholic ones, often provide better civic preparation than public schools,” Berner counters. Private education worsens inequity? Nonsense. Non-public schools have shown more success than traditional...

There’s much lamenting about how high-quality research tends not to inform classroom practice and how to fix that problem. Enter the What Works Clearinghouse’s (WWC) “Educator’s Practice Guides.” The WWC has produced twenty-two such guides over the last nine years on sundry topics that should interest educators. Their most recent installment is Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively. As someone who once taught secondary students how to write (yes, it was a long time ago!), I was keenly interested in what it had to say. Unfortunately, it misses the mark.

First a bit on how the guides are developed: the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) identifies a topic and recruits a panel chair with national expertise in the topic. That chair, working with IES, selects expert panelists, which always includes two practitioners, to co-author the guide. Relevant studies are identified through panelist recommendations and a systematic literature search, and then reviewed against the WWC study design standards, which prioritize random assignment and rigorous quasi-experimental designs. Panelists write the practice guide that boils down takeaways from the culled research. Their findings are subject to peer review to ensure that the cited evidence supports the recommendations.

The panel for Teaching...

It’s become a cliché to say “good riddance to 2016,” what with its nasty presidential campaign, tragic world events, and general ill feelings of strife and conflict, here and abroad. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Father Time!

Before we close the books on this vexed year, however, it’s important to pause and begin to understand how we got to this place, if only to help us truly leave it behind. Education, as always, has a key role to play. (More on that in a bit.)

“This place” is an America where many of our fellow citizens and communities are hurting badly, and feel little hope for the future. This pain is particularly acute among the white working class, in vast stretches of the deindustrialized heartland. The election returns made that clear, but it can also be measured in shortened life expectancy, the burgeoning opioid epidemic, faltering civic institutions, and much more. As many have pointed out, the suffering endured by Donald Trump’s political base is hardly foreign to other members of our polity—many African Americans, especially—who have long dealt with social and economic challenges in their neighborhoods. But its depth and breadth feel new...

The two most important changes in American education policy over the past several decades have been the expansion of school choice and changes to school accountability. So far, they’ve generally been good for our country and our kids. Yet they’ve largely left Catholic schools behind—and the leaders of Catholic education haven’t tried very hard either to resist these changes or to take advantage of them.

Resistance, mind you, probably would have been futile, although Catholic educators could surely have done more to help shape these changes. But mostly they stood by while change happened. And while those changes were happening in public policy, Catholic schools, overall, seemed like victims of a slow but serious wasting disease.

The statistics are glum. Private school enrollments have declined overall in the past decade, but Catholic school enrollments have declined faster—and started declining earlier. School closures abound. The remaining schools are often located in places where few Catholics live. Many kids attending them, particularly in urban areas, are not themselves Catholic. A lot of Catholic parents no longer feel strongly that their children should attend parochial schools for purposes of religious formation. The economics of the schools have become extremely stressed. Their governance, management,...

Unlike the Common Core, we at Fordham have never been big fans of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and thus have urged states not to adopt them. But what about efforts to revise them?

Massachusetts did just that with new Science and Technology/Engineering learning standards last spring—adding to, editing, and removing certain NGSS content, while still allowing educators in the state to benefit from existing NGSS-aligned curriculum and instructional resources. A white paper released by the Pioneer Institute earlier this month examines whether those new standards contain rigorous and appropriate content, and how they stack up against NGSS and the state’s earlier 2006 science standards.

Academic standards are learning goals that define what students should know and be able to do by a given grade. They’re intended to drive what gets taught in classrooms. As authors Paul R. Gross (who also authored our NGSS review) and Ze’ev Wurman stress, standards should clearly identify “specific student knowledge or skills—that is, a performance requirement.” Unfortunately, the study finds that Massachusetts’ new science standards fall short of this goal and share several major issues and flaws with the NGSS Standards from which they were adapted. For one, several important...

This study compares the practices of Michigan charter schools to those of neighboring district schools based on a survey of administrators in both sectors that was conducted in fall 2013. (Note that the study does not consider outcomes, only practices.) The survey was sent to the leaders of every Michigan charter school that was open during the 2012–13 and 2013–14 school years, as well as whichever district schools the plurality of each charter school’s students would have attended based on their neighborhood. Eighty-five percent of charter school leaders and 76 percent of district school leaders responded to the survey, meaning that 435 schools (226 charters and 209 district schools) are represented in the study.

Overall, the results reveal many similarities between the two sectors. For example, district and charter schools offer similar amounts of instructional time, and have similar academic calendars. They’re also equally likely to assign kids to reading classes based on their ability (though charters are slightly more likely to stream in math).

More surprising, principals in both sectors report incorporating a “no excuses” approach to education. For example, 82 percent of charter schools and 67 percent of district schools require that students sign behavioral contracts. Similarly, 81...