Flypaper

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doesn’t get a lot of respect. She’s recently become the object of a mean-spirited board game and an unflattering play based on her (unflattering) confirmation hearing.

She definitely got off to a rocky start in Washington, partly her own doing, but much of it due to the plain fact that many critics dislike her part in the Trump administration’s gradual dismantling of the federal nanny state and her willingness to unwrap some of the institutional, regulatory, and attitudinal bandages that have shielded young people—college students in particular—from unpleasantness, from the consequences of their own actions, and, I think it’s fair to add, from growing up.

Bravo, say I, for her preference for freedom over regulation, for adulthood over protracted adolescence, and for obliging kids—mollycoddled undergraduates most definitely included—to grapple with reality.

And two-thirds of a bravo for Secretary DeVos’s strong National Constitution Day address the other day in Philadelphia. She did an exemplary job of explaining why free speech is essential for education in a free society, why it’s vital also to acquire basic knowledge about topics like U.S. history and government, to understand the interplay of rights and responsibilities, and to confront...

 
 

Many of us, if we’re lucky, can fondly recall a time in elementary school when our parents proudly posted one of our A papers on the refrigerator door. Maybe it was a spelling test or set of multiplication problems—no matter. What mattered, though, was the outstanding achievement that mom, dad, and kid believed was embodied in that A, and the pride and satisfaction that we felt in seeing it every time we opened the fridge for a sandwich.

Back then, we didn’t question whether that A was actually earned. We assumed that we had mastered whatever was being graded and our hard work had paid off.

Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to assume that an A still represents excellence. And that’s a real problem.

Here at Fordham, we’ve had a longstanding interest in helping to ensure that parents know the truth about how their kids are doing in school. More than a decade ago, we published The Proficiency Illusion—a groundbreaking study that found that levels of reading and math “proficiency” varied wildly from state to state because of where states set their “cut scores.” What it took to pass a state test ranged from reading or doing math...

 
 

From complaints that our undergraduates are “mollycoddled babies,” to laments over the disappearance of meritocratic athletic trophies, to descriptions of college students’ “embarrassing fragility,” decrying the cosseting of today’s youth is widespread. And there’s good reason for concern: Despite good intentions, overprotection can be harmful.

Life is hard. Bad stuff happens, and people suffer when we lack the emotional and experiential foundation to deal with it. Sooner or later, just about everyone confronts anxiety, embarrassment, trauma, and tragedy. Expecting people to successfully create the necessary foundation during adulthood is simply unrealistic.

That it’s unrealistic, however, is difficult to prove. There are no solid data or rigorous, gold-standard studies. There can’t be. So those who fret about overprotection do so based on intuition, belief, and personal experience. Often, though, that’s enough. Such was my response upon reading a recent report in the Atlantic about teens protesting in-class presentations.

“In the past few years, students have started calling out in-class presentations as discriminatory to those with anxiety, demanding that teachers offer alternative options,” reports staff writer Taylor Lorenz. “Students who support abolishing in-class presentations argue that forcing students with anxiety to present in front of their peers is...

 
 

The debate about effective and equitable school discipline policies, fueled by a 2014 Dear Colleague letter from the Obama Administration, continues to weigh heavily on the minds of school reformers. As educators and lawmakers referee competing concerns about discipline and equity, we need more information about what states are doing. The Education Commission of the States (ECS) has released a report on each state’s current school discipline policies; their findings highlight the movement against out-of-school suspension and provide a peek into how states are addressing recent concerns about racial inequality in the dispensation of discipline.

ECS developed eight key questions to compare school discipline policies between states. Among these are whether and how exclusionary discipline (suspension or expulsion) is limited, what non-punitive or positive behavior support mechanisms are in place, and what discipline reporting requirements exist. For answers, they combed through statutes in all fifty states and the District of Columbia and synthesized their findings into tables organized by state and key question. The product is a comprehensive, user-friendly snapshot of the state of school discipline around the nation.

When it comes to exclusionary discipline, state policies vary widely; only sixteen states plus the District of Columbia limit exclusionary...

 
 

States purport to use teacher relicensure to maintain educator quality and facilitate professional development. Yet according to a recent New America report by Melissa Tooley and Taylor White, they are falling short of that goal.

After examining standard license renewal policies in all fifty states and D.C., as well as conducting informal interviews with teacher certification personnel, the analysts grouped states into two groups. The first, comprising a dozen states, require educators to create professional growth plans (PGPs), wherein they identify personal growth goals and plans to achieve them, and then document their progress. Tooley and White believe these to be more teacher-focused and more likely to fulfill the purpose of teacher relicensure. The policies in the thirty-eight other states and D.C. do not mention PGPs. Yet regardless of the greater potential in the first group, they generally found systems in both to be lacking. And even when policies seemed sound in theory, they found them to be mostly ineffective in practice.

Take, for example, “continuing education,” the most common element of relicensure policies, which exists in forty-four states. Teachers fulfill this requirement through myriad avenues, such as higher education coursework and varying levels of professional development (PD). But they...

 
 
Dina Brulles

Cesar, a first grader, scored 92 percent on the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT2). Although he did not officially qualify for gifted education services (requiring a score of 97 percent or higher), the school’s gifted specialist “flexed” Cesar into the gifted cluster class because of his ELL status. Cesar attends one of the district’s Title I schools (where they have few gifted-identified students), so they were able to offer him this participation. In third grade, Cesar took the gifted test again, and with his new score in the ninety-eighth percentile, he was officially identified as gifted. Cesar continued receiving advanced academic instruction through the cluster grouping model and then in honors classes. Had he not been tested on a nonverbal assessment and then flexed into the program in first grade, his teachers may not have recognized his high potential.

Those in low socioeconomic groups remain largely underserved in gifted and talented (G/T) programs. Yet gifted and talented students span all cultures and socioeconomic groups. The inequity stems from two primary challenges. First, considerable controversy surrounds what it means to be gifted. States and school districts vary greatly in their identification procedures, program qualification criteria, and instructional methods. Second, educators wrestle...

 
 

My really smart and brave friend from Tennessee, Vesia Hawkins, wrote a thought provoking piece about how all in parents and families are when it comes to youth football and she wonders if those same families show an equal level of engagement and commitment when it comes to their children’s literacy and numeracy. As the mom of boys who play football, baseball, and basketball, I’d say the point Vesia makes applies beyond football—though football does bring out a special kind of passion and commitment—to other sports and also to competitive dance, cheerleading, and any other activity that pushes kids to their limits. The common thread is a fundamental belief in high expectations and excellence.

So it’s got me wonderin’ if these parents are as aware and as fervently engaged in their child’s literacy and numeracy performance as they are in the x’s and o’s of pee wee football. If the high expectations around making plays are equal to the expectations of making good grades. Let me be clear, I’m not sitting in judgment. Rather I wonder if parents and grandparents know what not reading at grade level really means for the long-term and if they fight for little...

 
 

For as long as I’ve been involved in the sector, friends and strangers alike have frequently asked me what it’ll take to improve education in America? A magic wand is sometimes proffered to make the task more jovial but no less daunting. I got it again last month while on—of all places—the observation deck of the Freedom Tower in New York City. With a backdrop of breathtaking panoramic views atop the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, it reared its familiar head once again.

On its surface, the inquiry is innocent enough. The person asking it usually expects a straightforward response, especially from someone who spends his waking hours ruminating on the subject. And as a parent who is always attempting to break down complex ideas into their simplest terms, I feel obligated to have a pithy one at my fingertips.

To answer it, it’s useful to take a step back and consider an even broader question: “What’s the goal of our education system?” The idea of “improving” anything suggests measurement, and it’s easier to assess progress when there’s a clear end in mind. These days, a popular goal for our schools is workforce preparation, which has been in large...

 
 

“But you support the Common Core!” So said Laura Jimenez of the Center for American Progress on the Education Gadfly Show podcast when I argued that it was a mistake to peg high school graduation standards to the “college-ready” level.

Guilty as charged. I do support the Common Core, which is designed to get students to “college and career readiness” by the end of high school. But I also see that goal as aspirational; I don’t believe we should actually deny diplomas to young people who gain basic skills and pass their classes but don’t reach that lofty level. Nor do I think that we should force all students to take a college-prep course of study all the way through twelfth grade.

How do I square this circle? Am I hypocrite for claiming to support high expectations while not being willing to enforce those expectations when it comes to crunch time?

I’m not the only one struggling with this dilemma. Recently, veteran education policy analyst Marc Tucker, the founder and outgoing president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, penned a long and winding but remunerative essay on the conundrum. In his words:

If you...

 
 

If students are going to get the most out of school, they need to be engaged. Research shows, for example, that disengaged students are more likely to suffer a range of bad consequences, such as failing a course, repeating a grade, and dropping out. Yet however much rhetoric we may hear about building a “student-centered” education system, the education research world spends little time focusing on student perspectives.

To amplify student voices, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute commissioned a survey last year asking high schoolers about their classroom experience. The nationally-representative sample included students from forty-eight states and the District of Columbia, representing all types of schools—traditional public, public magnet, parochial, independent, and charter. The results, published in Fordham’s What Teens Want from Their Schools, gave us a broad portrait of student engagement in the country, and a peek at how students view America’s education system.

As the new school year starts, it’s time to think again about what students have to say. In a series of posts, this being the first, we’ll revisit that report and take a closer look at the results, with an eye towards what information might be useful for reformers and...

 
 

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