Kate Walsh

The fall conference season is well behind us, but a bad taste in my mouth lingers.

I’m struggling with the seismic shift in tone at these conferences, where education advocates traditionally assembled to give each other pep talks. In a few short years, we’ve gone from thinking we were right about everything—granted, that was kind of obnoxious—to adopting a rather pathetic and unattractive lament, professing just how wrong we’ve been about everything. I guess I prefer smug to self-flagellation.

Many advocates appear to be abandoning our once shared convictions about what it takes to lift children out of poverty, the very wellspring of the movement’s power and mass appeal. For years, we had stuck hard and fast to a sensible, winnable, and research-based strategy: improve student learning. Teach children to read. That is how we tackle society’s inequities.

Now having donned our hair shirts, these conferences have become both our confessional where we plead for forgiveness for our narrow-minded approach and our penance, where we agree to exchange our convictions for anything that will suggest just how broad-minded we now are—as long as we de-emphasize academic goals.

Sitting through the more fiery conference sessions, I could imagine how organizers made...

Title I, ESSA, parent engagement. Or just “blah blah blah.” At least that’s what most parents hear when those words get thrown around with zero explanation of what they even mean.

These terms and many others blend into the noise that is parenthood in 2018. It’s our job as education advocates, educators, and policymakers to not just explain but humanize these concepts so that the average parent has the information they need to understand the basics of what is happening and, subsequently, the confidence to engage in a system that can feel overwhelming and even unwelcoming.

And the key to doing that lies in one simple word: relationships.

The 1 percent

Schools that serve a high percentage of low-income students are often referred to as Title I schools because they receive additional federal funds. One percent of these funds, according to past and current education law, must be spent on parent engagement, but we are kidding ourselves if we think parent engagement is about money.

It isn’t.

We are also kidding ourselves if we think that 1 percent of Title I dollars is a lot of money.

It isn’t.

It’s approximately $160 million for the whole...

Max Eden

Is disparate impact analysis an appropriate tool for the federal government to use to investigate school discipline practices? As debate over the fate of the Obama administration’s school discipline policy heats up, expert opinion sharply diverges on this question. Allison Brown and Marlyn Tillman argued recently in USA Today that it’s altogether appropriate. Michael Petrilli argued here in Flypaper that it’s a bad fit. This debate is interesting, but it’s based on a false premise. Properly understood in our nation’s jurisprudence, the Obama Administration’s 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter did not apply disparate impact doctrine. 

Disparate impact theory is the notion that an apparently neutral policy that has a disproportionate impact on a particular group may indicate the existence of discrimination. It’s an evidentiary tool, not a substantive standard. Even its strongest proponents would never claim that any policy leading to different outcomes for different groups constitutes unlawful discrimination. It’s hard to imagine how any law could possibly be legal under that standard. It also doesn’t hold that any policy leading to different outcomes is presumptively unlawful discrimination. The rule of law could not possibly hold under the presumption that federal bureaucrats could find virtually any law unlawful...

How to evaluate teachers is a perennial question that is especially relevant now that ESSA has loosened requirements on state teacher evaluation systems. A recent U.S. Department of Education study examines whether increasing the frequency and detail of written and oral feedback offered to teachers and principals improves teaching practice and student achievement.

The authors studied math and English language arts teachers at sixty-three elementary and middle schools in eight large, primarily urban school districts. Each educator was observed four times a year for two years, once by a school administrator and three times by study-hired observers, followed up each time with an in-person conference, plus a written report with ratings and feedback. The system used to deliver this feedback differed, however, between districts. Four used the Classroom Assessment and Scoring System (CLASS) and four used Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching (FFT). Teachers also received annual student growth reports that included their value-added scores. Participating principals were evaluated based on twice-yearly teacher surveys examining their instructional leadership and teacher-principal trust.

Both teachers and principals reported finding the feedback more helpful than previous district feedback. A majority of principals described it as more practical and objective, and most...

Designing school funding policy is a delicate juggling act for state leaders. Contentious issues include deciding the responsibilities of local and state governments; determining efficient and fair ways to allocate funds; and ensuring economically friendly tax policies while raising sufficient revenue. Those seeking a firmer grasp of these topics should read a recent policy brief by Urban Institute researchers Matthew Chingos and Kristin Blagg that summarizes funding across the U.S. Three points in particular are worth highlighting.

First, the analysts show that state governments have increased their contributions to public education since the 1930s. When that decade began, local revenues constituted the lion’s share of schools’ finances, contributing more than eighty cents of every dollar. Since then an increasing percentage has come from states. In most states today, local and state contributions each constitute about 45 percent of school funding; the federal government supplies the remaining ten percent. Yet these funding statistics, authoritative as they may be, arguably understate the true role of state governments in financing public education. In Ohio, for example, districts must levy a minimum 2 percent property tax in order to receive state funds. While these revenues are deemed “local,” they are integral to the...

Jay P. Greene

In education reform, like other policy areas, analysts are busy trying to identify how to channel people’s behavior in directions that we believe will improve their lives. If we think people should eat less, we devise interventions to encourage them to cut back. If we think too few students go to college, we nudge them to enroll. If we think people save too little, we arrange systems to increase retirement contributions. In what is imagined to be a kinder, gentler approach to these problems, we “nudge” people toward desired outcomes rather than mandating them. Mandating can seem too harsh and produce backlash, but nudges allow social scientists to influence behavior without feeling like they are infringing on the autonomy and liberty of the people whose behavior they are shaping. Most people behave irrationally and lack impulse control, but the priestly class of social scientists can detect and correct these problems for other people.

A central problem with this approach is that we know too little about the lives of others to know with confidence what is good for them or how our nudges will affect their entire lives. We may think we are helping people, but absent the...

Marc Tucker

It is not often that I describe a book I have read as a treasure, but David Driscoll’s Commitment and Common Sense: Leading Education Reform in Massachusetts is exactly that. The book, written in the form of a memoir, is mainly the story of the implementation of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, a comprehensive redesign of the Massachusetts education system that enabled the state, alone among all the states in the United States, to enter the ranks of the world’s top-performing education systems.

The book tells it like it is. It is an authentic, at times funny, always compelling account of how this landmark comprehensive policy reform was shaped and implemented. It won’t surprise you that I strongly recommend that you buy this book and read it.

But, at the same time, I would urge some caution. I have known David Driscoll for many years and, like so many others, come to love him. He is such a decent, caring human being, overflowing with that most uncommon quality: common sense as well as a vast horde of carefully considered experience. The very antithesis of an ideologue, he can see merit in each of two opposing views. He can...

You don’t have to look far to find cogent rebuttals to a recent Associated Press story on charter schools and segregation. That analysis—which blames charter schools for intensifying segregation in public schools—is reminiscent of a political campaign where, running from a suspect track record, an incumbent blames the challenger for something he himself has done.

In this case, in a country that is deeply segregated, and whose public schools are deeply segregated both because of changing demographics and the precondition of residential assignment that pervades the public system, charter schools are being scapegoated for creating the racially divided and isolated world that the public schools themselves have given us. It’s the sort of pablum only a politico could offer.

The arguments many have made to counter this are spot-on, in particular about the difference between being assigned to racial isolation versus minorities making affirmative choices to be with people who share their skin color and, perhaps, their values. But there’s a piece that’s missing, and so much turns on understanding it that we gloss over it at our own peril.

The truth is, the attack on charters and their perceived role in segregation reveals a...

Editor’s note: School discipline reform has been the subject of several articles by Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in recent weeks. See this one for an overview of his concerns about the unintended consequences of top-down reform, and this one for ideas on where we might find common ground.

In 2014, in response to findings that African American students were three times as likely to be suspended as white students, the Obama Administration sent a lengthy “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts nationwide, spelling out a new policy on school discipline, motivated by disparate impact theory. It warned administrators that they could be subject to a federal civil rights investigation if their data showed significant racial disparities in the use of suspensions or expulsions, and could be found guilty of discrimination even if they had race-neutral discipline policies that were being applied even-handedly.

It’s this use of disparate impact analysis—and the threat of federal investigations based on discipline disparities alone—that gives many of us on the right such pause, and is why we believe the current administration should rescind or revise the 2014 letter. We worry that it will tie the hands of teachers and school administrators...

I was four years old in September 1967 on my first day of kindergarten at Countrywood Elementary School in South Huntington School District 13 on Long Island. Before my first year of formal education was over, Martin Luther King, Jr., would be shot to death in Memphis. Robert Kennedy, too, in Los Angeles. More than 30,000 American boys had been killed in Vietnam by the time riots disrupted the Democratic National Convention, just weeks before I started first grade in Mrs. Bobowitz’s class. Riots and social unrest were not infrequent in the America of my early childhood years: Watts, Detroit, Newark, Washington, D.C. Airline hijackings were common, too. My dad flew for American.

My parents made no attempt that I’m aware of to shield me from the events of those turbulent years. There was always a copy of Newsday and the New York Daily News on the kitchen table, and the TV was rarely turned off in our house. I remember the moon landing and the Manson murders, both of which occurred in the sixth summer of my life. Memory is untrustworthy, but despite growing up in the most tumultuous years of the last few generations, I don’t believe I...