Flypaper

Editor's note: This is the first essay of a three-part series that examines the major challenges facing education reformers. The author adapted these essays from his keynote address at the Yale School of Management’s Education Leadership Conference in April.

I voted for President Barack Obama twice and pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton last fall. I also know Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and was one of the few folks to support her nomination.

I’ve worked with business groups in New York and moms and dads in New Jersey to raise the bar for our kids. I worked on New Jersey’s teacher evaluation framework and helped pass its tenure law TEACH NJ with the state’s teachers unions. I’ve supported public charter schools alongside the thousands of New York and New Jersey families whose children fill them.

I grew up in the same neighborhood Freddie Gray did in Baltimore, and I went to private school on a scholarship, so I also support vouchers and tax credits, fiercely.

All of this is to say I believe in education reform, in all its flavors, and I’ve worked with all sorts of people, from all walks of life and both political parties, to make it...

As more and more elite independent schools price themselves out of the upper-middle class parent market, as more of their traditional distinguishing features—things like honors courses, ample Advanced Placement offerings, library and technology access, small classes, oodles of art and music—get picked up by ever more district and charter schools, and as selective colleges seek to fill their entering classes with more variegated kids from a wider array of high schools, many private schools are struggling to devise new ways of setting themselves apart from the masses (and, presumably, justifying their lofty price tags).

These schools are now awash in internships and expeditions to destinations near and far, esoteric summer opportunities, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic language classes, dance and theater and more. Nothing wrong with any of those, and I’m all for maximizing the variety of quality school choices available to students—the more so as states enact voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs that draw more families closer to affording private options. And it’s surely a fine thing that some private schools are getting out of their stodgy education ruts—in which surprisingly little has changed in fifty years save for the arrival of computers—and seeking worthy innovations.

But please let us...

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have already submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education to meet their obligations under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the remaining thirty-four will do likewise in September. These publicly available documents describe, among other things, how the state intends to hold its schools accountable, including, in most cases, how it will calculate annual summative school ratings.

Unfortunately, many of the first batch of plans overemphasize “status measures” that are correlated with pupil demographics and/or prior achievement. Mainly they rely on test-based academic “proficiency” and (for high schools) graduation rates. While a certain amount of weight should be placed on such indicators, overweighting them in summative grading systems will cause almost all high-poverty campuses to fail for the simple, beyond-their-control reason that the pupils they enroll tend to enter school behind their more prosperous age-mates.

Growth measures, on the other hand, are more poverty-neutral gauges of school performance. They look at the trajectory of achievement over time, regardless of where students start the year. Such metrics should be the primary component of annual school ratings. What policymakers should care most about when evaluating schools is whether they’re giving their students an upward...

My first job out of college was in a construction company. I was hired as the office manager, receptionist, typist, and gofer. But I also transported enormous saw blades, delivered Christmas gifts to our best customers, called deadbeat clients to ask them politely but firmly when they were going to pay up, and even directed traffic on a busy commuter road during summer rush hour once in a while.

I graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in creative writing.

I had pursued that field of study because I wanted to be a writer and the English department at Ohio State University was pretty fertile ground for that. I took seminar classes from poets and award-winning short-story writers. Passed ’em all, too. I evolved from a lover of pulpy science fiction to an aspiring writer of literary fiction. It was thinky and boho and maybe even pretentious occasionally. The work was important, and we were all going to be the next great novelist, poet, or essayist.

And then I graduated. And life called me to dust and driving and deadlines. And you might think that nothing about my four years as an English major or my hard-earned degree mattered. Certainly...

Cognitive neuroscientists are the Cassandras of education.

Recall that in Greek mythology, Cassandra was blessed with the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo. But when she refused to sleep with him, Apollo didn’t rescind the gift, he added a curse: poor Cassandra could still see the future, but she was doomed never to be believed. Mark Seidenberg probably envies Cassandra. He writes like someone who wonders exactly whom he has to sleep with to get people to pay attention to him.

Seidenberg is a University of Wisconsin cognitive neuroscientist who has been studying reading “since the disco era.” His indispensable new book, Language at the Speed of Sight, lays out in clear, readable English much of what we have learned over the past several decades about reading; he labors to “cheerfully destroy a few myths” about how we process and make sense of the printed word, but Seidenberg is no happy warrior. He wants his readers to share his fury at the “profound disconnection between the science of reading and educational practice” that he deftly unpacks.

The first two-thirds of the book covers the current state of reading science, starting with a brief history of human language development and...

Every day I learn about another charter school that has found a way to help low-income, often minority, students graduate from high school and get accepted into college at an unbelievably high rate.

For the community that I work with, Latinos, this is fantastic news. Statistics from the Pew Research Center show that the high school dropout rate for Latinos is higher than all other groups: 12 percent. Additionally, 66 percent of Latino high school graduates polled told the National Journal that they intended to enter the workforce or join the military directly after high school.

Sure, not every kid has to go to college, but the benefits of a college degree are well known, so I wholeheartedly cheer on the work of these charters. The reality is that the kids in the neighborhoods these schools serve haven’t been avoiding college to follow some other fruitful path—they’re falling into a seemingly inescapable cycle of poverty. When charter schools break that cycle, they change the trajectory of entire families.

But, in a dubious new trend, critics of charters—and even some supporters—are focusing on their graduates’ college drop out rate. Not long ago, an article in USA Today...

There’s a lot that’s appealing about personalized learning, properly construed. Rather than march a classroom of students through academic material at the exact same pace, regardless of their discordant levels of readiness or their varying degrees of background knowledge, personalized settings allow schools to target instruction to the exact needs of individual children. It’s not meant to be a euphemism for “computer-based instruction,” but a version of differentiation that uses a variety of approaches, from tutoring to peer discussions to teacher-led lessons and, yes, some digital resources. Done right, it doesn’t give up on academic standards, either. Instruction may be personalized but all students are still expected to master all the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for the next step in their learning and for eventual success beyond school.

Hooray for all that. But after seeing a version of personalized learning in action recently, I’m worried that it may be reinforcing some of the worst aspects of standards-based, data-driven instruction. Namely: It might be encouraging a reductionist type of education that breaks learning into little bits and scraps and bytes of disparate skills, disconnected from an inspiring, coherent whole.

Personalized learning enthusiasts might look to the food industry...

The release of this latest report from Bellwether Education Partners is fortuitously timed as school districts large and small reach the end of another school year beset by transportation problems. Authors Phillip Burgoyne-Allen and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess dissect those challenges and argue convincingly that the difficulties in providing effective and efficient service are the result of archaic structures, bureaucratic inertia, and siloed responsibilities. It is less a question of money, as some would argue, than a lack of wherewithal to change how that money is spent.

The authors begin by describing the main models of student transportation: district-operated, contractor-operated, public transit, and various combinations of the three. While all of these models are decades old, the district-centered model still predominates: school systems own and operate two-thirds of all school buses on the road today. Various state funding models are also described. Some are aimed at maintaining the district-operated status quo, others are more student and family-centric and agnostic on form, and still others incentivize contracting out transportation or seeking economies of scale with parallel public transit systems.

Rural and suburban districts face challenges of distance and inefficient routes. Urban districts face myriad challenges posed by...

The Fordham Institute recently released Three Signs that a Proposed Charter School is at Risk of Failing, a study of over six hundred charter applications that aims to identify risk factors that make a potential charter school more likely to perform poorly during its early years. As the leader of Fordham’s authorizing team in Ohio, I was eager to read the report to see whether it aligns with what we see when reviewing applications and, subsequently, authorizing brand new schools.

Indeed, one or more of the report’s top three identified “flags”—in our experience—are usually present in weak charter applications:

  • Failure to identify a school leader for a self-managed school
  • “High risk, low dose”/misalignment of programming: applications whose target population is “at-risk” youth, yet the application fails to include sufficient academic supports (e.g., intensive small group instruction, extensive tutoring, etc.) to serve that population
  • The use of child-centered, inquiry-based instructional models (e.g., Montessori, experiential, etc.)

These “flags” make sense. Self-managed schools—those not supported by a larger network—typically lack access to deep and consistent talent pipelines, and often have a harder time finding and retaining high quality school leaders. Misalignment of programming is another problem. If an application proposes to serve...

It’s time for charter school advocates who’ve doubled down against private school choice to “see the light.” We need to put aside old grudges and commit ourselves to cooperation.

As a new administration works to make education savings accounts and vouchers palatable to Washington, reform advocates should remember that when any type of educational option is strengthened, all options benefit. Families benefit. After all, freedom isn’t easily taken away once people experience it. So let’s open the floodgates and not argue about whether charters are better than private schools.

The charter/private school divide isn’t new. I remember my first tour of a charter school as the executive director of an organization with “school choice” in its name. The principal greeted me warmly, but was quick to point out, “We’re a public charter school. School choice isn’t our thing.” She would be the first of many to highlight this seemingly metaphysical difference.

What many in the charter camp wish to assert is that there are “good” choices and “bad” choices. And this isn’t a statement about school quality. It’s a position that private school choice in the form of vouchers and other funding mechanisms should not exist. It’s something like a...

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